1959 - The Masters
William Wood 1962
MY TEACHERS (ALL NOW DEAD): A MEMOIR

1. Beefy

I have only ever failed one examination and that was ‘O’ Level Geography. The whole class failed geography, yet Beefy was never sacked.

Beefy was an intimidating master. He looked like a bad-tempered buffalo waiting to charge. He was a bully. He owned room 5, the geography room. He taught no other subject, did not participate in any of the sports, neither training us nor refereeing during matches like the other masters. All he did was to run the school shop, open above the tuck shop during break. Here we were obliged to buy our uniforms, our scarves and ties and squares, our boots and shoes. We did not choose. We went away with what Beefy told us fitted.

He had no idea how to teach. He had probably been appointed geography master because he had served in the navy as Commander Searle during the war and had travelled. Room 5 was the commander’s ship, we were his ratings. Each lesson began with the ritual humiliation of one pupil. We never knew whom he would pick on. Often it was someone with a slightly different appearance: a big nose, red hair or just some small kid who was particularly ink-stained. Beefy was responsible for quite a few of our nicknames because after his mauling they stuck. Beaky, Earwig, Scruff and Snot were names coined by Beefy, who surely knew his own.

For ‘O’ Level 1959 he was convinced the question would be on the Saint Lawrence Seaway because it was to be opened with a big fanfare to ocean going vessels that year. It would link all the Great Lakes of North America to the sea. Beefy had also been there and in one or two lessons during which he mellowed a little with reminiscence, he would describe drifting in fog of Newfoundland, of icebergs and shoals of cod and an occasional description of the Great Lakes, the towns upon them and the industries around them.

Before the exam we confidently swatted up all our notes. When we turned over the paper we found the question was all about the coalfields of Britain. We knew nothing about coalfields. We knew nothing about Britain.

There was one other task Beefy undertook once a year. He gave career advice. When my compulsory interview came up he asked me what I wanted to do.

“I don’t really know, Sir,” I said. “Something outdoors.”
Beefy bellowed with laughter. “Like what? A scarecrow!”
“Farming,” I hazarded, “or forestry.”
“Have your parents got a farm?”
“No, sir.”
“Well, farming’s out.” He did not ask whether they owned a forest. He just told me to join the Colonial Service and to see the world; and to send the next boy in.”

I do not remember whether the Colonial Service still existed then but I did not heed his advice. I went to university and after graduation paid my £10 and emigrated to Australia.

2. Percy

We were not very original in naming our teachers. Mr. Vere was known as Percy as Mr. Peck was Greg, after a well known actor of the era called Gregory Peck. Mr. Vere taught German mainly because he had a Swiss wife. He was a small, pleasant and lazy man whose lessons were undemanding. He had no idea how to teach. Only six of us studied ‘A’ Level German with him and we barely scraped through the exam. We never actually spoke the language, just read the set books and translated texts. One week, when he was ill, his wife took his lessons and it was a revelation. German became exciting, a living language and very soon we were actually communicating in it. We were all sad when Percy came back and his wife returned to her duties as Housemistress.

I liked Percy Vere. It was only years later that I realized how little we had learned in his classes and what opportunities we had missed.

He did, however, have another string to his bow. Before we had a new gym and a trained P.E. instructor, Percy took us for P.T. in the old, cold building. This was pretty routine stuff, standing in rows and doing exercises and drills. We wore no underpants beneath our skimpy P.T. shorts and no sweater over the thin white shirts. One exercise we had to do, after we had warmed up a little swinging arms and running on the spot, was to lie on our back, feet to the front and raise our legs 45 degrees from the horizontal. We were made to circle them three times to the right and three times to the left, presumably to firm up our tummy muscles. We were not allowed to drop our feet back down to the floor until Percy permitted it. The effort of maintaining this position made us red in the face, made our stomachs rigid with pain and sometimes caused an involuntary erection. Percy stood in front staring up our loose shorts as though mesmerised by his power, forgetting to give us relief.

On very cold days, however, he realized we had all to be kept vigorously on the move. Then we played the popular monkey island game. All the gym equipment, the mats and the vaulting horses, the bars and benches and boards were placed strategically around the wooden floor while the four climbing ropes hung down over a central hessian mat to form the island. It was essentially a game of tag and as each boy caught another so the hunted became another hunter. We ran, jumped and swung to avoid capture. If we touched the floor we were disqualified.

Reaching the island did not mean sanctuary, but I was good at rope climbing and if I could reach them I would shin to the top and wait. The only way I could be caught was by another boy climbing another rope and leaning across to touch me. There was no escape. To climb down would be to fall into the hands of those waiting below. At best I could only hope that most people would be caught before I was noticed. Usually the game ended well before the end of the period and lazy Percy was happy to dismiss us.

3. Josh

Many people say that one teacher in their life made a mark. With 65 years hindsight I realize that in my case that man was probably Josh. He was the school chaplain and taught us what was first called scripture and later divinity. I must have known him from the age of eight, (because he also covered my prep school Coursehorne) also in Cranbrook until I was 18. On first appointment he had begun his lessons with Moses leading the Jews to the Promised Land and the subsequent story of Joshua. Hence his nickname. Oddly enough, I do not know what Josh’s real Christian name was.

Josh was a tall, rangy man with a lean, weather beaten face. He always wore a dog collar with the same old grey flannel suit that flapped loosely about his gaunt frame. In inclement weather he wore a navy blue beret, the only earthly possession he cared for. He had acquired it in the Spanish Civil War when fighting against Franco. Few of us knew of this episode in his life and he never spoke of it in divinity. Perhaps he should have done. He might have been treated more as a hero than as a clown.

Poor Josh! While everyone behaved when he was taking church services, in the classroom it was a different matter altogether. Divinity was not an exam subject and although it was compulsory, none of us took it seriously. It was like a free period and Josh simply could not keep order. I liked him from the beginning and felt embarrassed and sorry for him when other boys played him up.

My earliest memory goes back to when I was little and our homework was to draw a picture illustrating a biblical theme. He had once told us the story from the Book of Samuel of King Solomon ogling a beautiful woman who was bathing on a nearby roof. I drew a picture of the scene. At that age I had no knowledge of Middle Eastern culture or architecture so I drew a man in a crown looking through his telescope at the naked Bathsheba. She I depicted sitting in a bath tub like the one we had at home, complete with taps, but perched on the sloping roof of a house. Josh gave me 9 out of 10 for it.

As we grew older I began to take a more inquisitive interest in religion and asked serious questions. Josh always gave straight answers. Most of us in those days would have said that we were Christian without a second thought. Few questioned the dogma, let alone the very existence of God, though I suspect none of us any longer believed in the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas.

We all got confirmed as a matter of course, the confirmation being just another chore like learning aircraft recognition and the Morse Code in the CCF. Nonetheless most of us took the preparation for the ceremony seriously. Josh, awake to the fervour of one or two boys, cautioned us all not to be disappointed by the service. “You will probably not see any blinding light or feel the immediate presence of God. You may not feel any different at all,” he warned us.

Even so I did feel let down that God had not revealed a bit of himself, if only to thank me for all my trouble and at least to say well done on the day of my confirmation. I asked myself why this was and the heretical thought struck me that God had indeed revealed himself by his absence: perhaps there was no God.

As this truth slowly grew so my agony of mind increased and I sought out Josh for a private meeting. We did not do confession but Josh was happy to talk to me. I suppose other boys occasionally took their troubles to him, too, so when I stammered,


“Sir, I don’t know if I believe in God any more,” Josh was not a bit surprised. He spoke to me kindly and lent me a book, “Great Religions of the World.”

Reading this convinced me. Religion was merely a cultural and geographical phenomenon. Where you were born and how you were indoctrinated was what shaped your belief. I returned the book with thanks.

“I hope it helped you,” said Josh.
“Very much, thank you Sir,” I said.

He nodded and I felt that a tacit understanding had been established. The best thing about Josh as our chaplain was that he had no evangelical tendencies.

In the VIth Form, however, he asked me to be Head of Christian Fellowship, one of many societies. I needed something on my CV for University Entrance; besides we had some of the best debates of my school career in those meetings and I was happy to take on the role. I soon realized that not everyone who called themselves Christian believed in God or angels or, indeed, in the literal truth of the creed. Mostly, though, this stint prepared me for the liberation of thought and belief that my university studies were to bring.

There is a difference between a teacher who cannot teach and one who cannot keep order. I have said that Josh had fought in Spain. He also spoke fluent Spanish and in the VIth Form he offered to prepare us for “O” Level Spanish alongside the “A” Levels we were studying. It was quite voluntary and took place only once a week, but since we all knew French and Latin it was easy to pick up the rudiments of Spanish. Josh became a different character, a real teacher who actually spoke the language we were learning. His heart was in his subject much more than in the dreadful tedium of forcing divinity down the throats of the indifferent. It was in a Spanish lesson that he let slip about his war experiences and we discerned then traces of a certain crusading zeal.

We all passed the exam after just one year’s part time tuition. During that time I gained an insight into the man Josh might have been had he not been “chosen” to teach divinity throughout the school and to conduct Holy Communion, Matins and Evensong for the same indifferent mass every Sunday. Instead of a lugubrious figure of fun, he could have been an inspiring teacher of languages and history. What a waste of a good man, I thought. A liberal thinker despite his religion.

I hope to God I have not done him an injustice.

4. Bassett

Not much of a nickname, Bassett did though have the lugubrious look of a hound. But he was a tall, rangy man with a bony face and behind a fierce reserve a shy kindness. He was my housemaster, firm but fair, never familiar but a man who could when necessary stand in loco parentis. Bassett it was who told me my grandfather had died and tactfully left me alone for ten minutes in his study to weep and dry my eyes. Bassett was kept human by a sympathetic wife and three children, one of whom had long been a school friend.

He never taught me after O Level. His subject was advanced maths and although I managed to mug up the essentials of Pythagoras’ theorem and solve enough equations to scrape through that exam, the slide rule and calculus of A level defeated me.

Bassett also refereed hockey and rugby games and had been a hockey blue. A big, lean man he looked more at home on the sports field than dressed in his unpressed army uniform and standing exposed on the parade ground. His turn-out was a disgrace but I felt his heart was not in this army charade.

5. The Pod

So-called because of a tight, round stomach that hung over his belt, he was a stupid little man who taught history. Once a week we had to hand in an essay written in our history exercise books. Next morning we retrieved our work from the pile of books flung on to the window sill of the history room. Leafing through other boys’ work I hit upon the secret of getting top marks: they were awarded for length alone. I do not think the Pod even read what we wrote. I was so convinced of this that to test my theory I once copied a whole chapter from the text book verbatim. Sure enough I got good marks for it. Thereafter I developed a larger, well spaced handwriting for the Pod’s homework and always scored highly. I cannot to this day remember what era of history we covered.

6. Greg

It was a relief and a revelation to have Mr. Peck, nicknamed as I have mentioned after Gregory Peck, a famous film star of the day, to teach us ‘O’ Level History. He was the first to use the new syllabus, the history of the World Wars, quite recent history then. The course included the rise of the Soviet Union. Through Greg I got a glimmering of what politics was about or should have been about.

Greg also taught a non exam subject, General Knowledge. He made it intensely stimulating and interesting, not by teaching it himself, but by urging us to do presentations on any topic that interested us. I remember presenting the French Impressionists which I illustrated with large books on painting from home and later I gave a talk on Vienna where I had been on a language exchange and which had been my first ever encounter with a large city. I had fallen in love with the whole experience, the language, the architecture, the museums, even the opera. Greg allowed me, a very shy boy, to express my enthusiasm and he added his own touches of scholarship. Our schoolboy talks were all very simplistic and descriptive but I felt a debt to Greg for taking me seriously and for building my self-confidence. Even more indebted was a friend of mine who became almost a protégé of Greg’s when taking ‘A’ level History with him and gaining a scholarship to Cambridge on the strength of it.

Poor old Greg, the best master, but looked down on by the other masters because he had come to us from a Secondary Modern. He later went on to stand as a Liberal candidate and was lost to teaching.

7. Spag

Considering that the worst teachers, qua teachers, I had were in French and German, it is surprising that I went on to study these languages at university. It was despite my teachers and thanks to family holidays and the discovery of French and German literature that I succeeded; and perhaps to my practising languages on some of the au pairs in our village who taught me much else besides.

Spag actually died in my ‘A’ Level year and was not replaced. Reading Verlaine and Rimbaud and Baudelaire in my bedroom and my holiday trysts with Marie-Edith probably contributed more than I realized.

His real name was Gianetti and he spoke English and French with an Italian accent decorated with spittle. He must have been to Cambridge for he had a hockey blue but when I knew him he had turned to flab and we never saw him in shorts.

He made us read and translate the set texts aloud and would take on some of the roles himself. He would wave his arms about and spit with passion. I remember him as Moliere’s Avare, the miser, coveting his money. Spag really lost himself in this role, forgetting the classroom and the astounded, jeering boys.

There was no rapport with this wild-eyed man. We were told he died of a heart attack. We felt only, “there goes my French ‘A’ Level, then.

8. Mog

He was Welsh but we did not call our music master Morgan the Organ. We called him Mog. His thick hair was always in disarray like a grey version of one of the wilder Beethoven portraits.

Mog’s passion and in his eyes his raison d’être was the school choir which he maintained to the highest standards. I was never part of this time consuming activity and after my junior years had little contact with the temperamental man.

In addition to the choir he had to teach music to the lower forms until music, like art, was abandoned when ‘O’ level courses began.

My first encounter with Mog was to shape my musical career for the next eight years and quite probably for the rest of my life. During that initial lesson each boy had to come up in front of the class and sing a scale in an alto voice. We were divided into choir material and others. I was relegated to a category worse than others. Along with only two or three boys I was told not only that I could not sing but that I should not sing. In church I should only mouth the words to hymns, psalms and carols. Mog made no effort to help us or to guide us. At the age of eleven we were written off in seconds, just as paintings entered for the Royal Academy’s Summer exhibition are dismissed with the wave of a hand.

It is true that I do not have perfect pitch, but I might have learned to sing. I had been harbouring thoughts of becoming a country vicar in a Jane Austen kind of way, doing a bit of natural history and writing on the side. However Church of England services require a certain amount of chanting and singing. Mog’s snap rejection of me may have been the Lord’s way of telling me I was mistaken in my vocation. Perhaps!

The music lessons were tedious and uninspiring. When not being made to sing, or not to sing in my case, we listened to vinyl recordings of classical symphonies played on a gramophone in front of the restive class. Mog could never keep us quiet for more than a movement or two and would erupt into despairing Welsh rages. My music education was balanced by hearing Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly songs belted out from Dansettes on the landings in my boarding house.

Mog also, for his sins, taught Latin to the lower school. Since I had already done two years Latin before I went to the school, he taught me nothing new. He lacked the imagination to build on my existing knowledge. Consequently I found Latin and Music the two most boring subjects.

9. Robert

I do not know quite how Robert got away with it. He taught art but no one took it as far as exam level. He was rather lovely, about forty years old but already bald. His head shone and he wore a red bow tie with white spots and a fawn jacket. He had his favourites and would hang over them and their art work with words of encouragement, nay endearment, quite neglecting us mediocrities. This elegantly camp master had the way of moving and speaking of a stereotypical homosexual but in fact he was married with two daughters almost as beautiful as he imagined himself to be. I remember them better than their father. I did however enjoy art and was sad when we had to drop it for the “serious” subjects of ‘O’ Level.


10. Dowsing

He had no nickname. An ex RSM he made the CCF more professional, smartening us up until we performed like machines on the parade ground and once a week he took us for P.E. Until he came we had under Percy Vere called it P.T. (physical training) so I guess he must have done a more up to date course in Physical Education. By then we also had splendid new gym and were learning the new sport of basket ball. Dowsing was a demanding instructor but would make us do nothing he could not do himself. Being in his late forties, when this hairy, solid man demonstrated the upward roll on the bar or the muscle punishing exercises on the rings, he was close to his own limits. His face would go red, his veins stand out but by sheer strength of mind he achieved his ends. We felt like applauding him and when we had to perform, provided we put enough effort into it, he in turn encouraged our own feeble efforts. He would, however, not tolerate slackers and shirkers.

I remember him with respect. One report he gave me was “Wood is clean and obedient”. He, too, died suddenly of a heart attack soon after I left school and when I heard of it I felt sorry.

11. The Major

In contrast to Dowsing the Major was a gaffe prone Dad’s army character. Complete with bushy moustache and pipe he was nominally in charge of the Corps but we knew the RSM often rescued him from his bumbling ways and saved his face.

He was a pleasant, easy going man who also taught us woodwork and despite his military duties, had difficulty keeping order in the workshop. His catch phrase, when tackling some offender was “I believe you. Hundreds wouldn’t.” He usually let them get away with it.

He had a large bosomed wife we called the Battleship. She would sail down the pavement more like a galleon in a following wind than a battleship forcing all-comers to step into the road. We felt sorry for the Major but could not help liking him.

12.Jo

Mr. Evans was feared and little loved. Jo was by no means a pet name. I wonder in retrospect whether he was named Jo after Joseph Stalin for he was the oldest and harshest of the masters. He taught Greek and Latin and was a housemaster. He was unmarried, austere and had a speech impediment as a result of having being gassed in the First World War. He gasped for breath as he spoke, particularly when beginning a sentence. He never used our names but with a rasping intake of breath would summon, “Aaaah, Boy!”

Latin lessons were torture. Nothing was explained, every mistake or hesitation on our part punished. We had to distinguish our dactyls from our trochees, parse verse whose meaning was never explained, know our ablative absolutes from our gerundives and we had to translate pages of De Bello Gallico by Vergil in class. This we did by mugging up the crib the night before, learning it by heart. Thus, when picked on in class we hoped to recognise enough clues to find our place in the crib that by now was branded into our memory. I never grasped what superannuated volunteers were or what they were doing in the Alps!

Years later when I found people from other schools who could read and enjoy the Latin authors as naturally as we read French and German I was amazed. I never learned to understand fluently, let alone to enjoy Latin literature. It never occurred to me that there was beauty in the language. For the rest of my life I was turned off anything Latin from archaeological sites to visiting Rome! But we had to have ‘A’ Level Latin to read modern languages at university so I stuck at the punishing schedule.

In all those years we would never have dared ask Jo a question, or indeed, attract his malevolent attention to us in any way; we never learned anything of the literary, sociological or even historical background to the texts we turned out. We were simply all scared stiff of Jo. I never once had a personal conversation with him, or a conversation at all, come to think of it. Perhaps the effort of speech was physically too much for him and small talk unthinkable.

He was possibly a lonely man with a tragic past but this did not excuse his readiness to catch us out for small misdemeanours inside or outside class, such as finding us with a hand in our pocket or the middle button of our jacket undone.

His lust for power was revealed in one respect. He was Deputy Headmaster and on the occasions when the Head was absent he took morning assembly, battling his speech impediment to introduce hymns and prayers and to make announcements. His face was grim and set but it betrayed nonetheless a certain relish for power. I could see him as one of the less attractive Roman emperors.

When a new Headmaster was appointed, Jo, to his chagrin was passed over in favour of a younger man who had played rugby for England but who a few terms later committed suicide. Unless Jo killed him, of course.

13. Shove

He had been there so long that we never fathomed why the headmaster was called Shove. Of all the masters he is the one I have most difficulty calling to mind. I remember only a shadowy figure in dark suit and begowned for morning assembly. Over the eight years I was at the school I must have seen him most mornings but now I cannot even describe him. I cannot remember his voice, his age or even his face.

He did not teach any subject and never entered the classrooms. He left the church services to Josh, though there was a rumour he had once taught divinity. He was regarded rather as a god himself by boys and masters alike with a kind of subdued respect. During the day he sat in his study in a cloud of pipe smoke. He was protected from the world of boys by a fierce but approachable secretary, the tweedy Miss Norman. She, not the headmaster, sorted out any practical problem. In the rare event of a boy being sent to the headmaster for disciplinary reasons Shove gave him six of the best without the benefit of interrogation.

I spoke only once to Shove. He called me to his study to go over my application forms for university. He had re-written the whole set because he said my own handwriting was too messy. He also scolded me for misspelling my father’s profession. I was too much in awe of him to open my mouth other than to respond, “Yes sir, no sir, thank you sir,” as appropriate.

When he, too, died of a heart attack, having been at the school for over 30 years, there was very real shock as though a monarch or the Pope had died. His death led to a succession of unfortunate appointments, the first of whom could not cope at all. He it was who killed himself. Others at first were not much better but by then I had escaped to higher education, perhaps due to the care Shove had taken with my application forms.
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