School days at Sherborne

Not always the happiest days of our lives

A dialogue with Tim[1]

Not long ago I received one of those well-crafted letters from my old school, Sherborne, a middle-ranking boys’ public school, inviting me to give money for some unquestionably worthy development project designed to add still further to the already handsome amenities from which future generations of Sherborne boys will benefit.  I sent my usual curmudgeonly reply.  Later I started an entertaining e-mail correspondence with a Sherborne contemporary, Tim Weakley – actually he had been a year ahead of me, also in School House – and sent him, more for his amusement than for his edification, a copy of my reply to the school’s fund-raising letter:

“Such modest charitable giving as I can afford I try to concentrate on a few of the many good causes which aim to help the poorest and the  dispossessed in the third world and here at home.  With the best will in the world (and even if I felt the best will in the world towards Sherborne!) I can’t squeeze into that category a fund to help finance yet more sophisticated buildings and other resources for a well endowed, middle-ranking, fee-paying public school for the children of the prosperous middle classes.  Indeed I have always thought that it was a nonsense that a school like Sherborne (or a Foundation set up to raise money for it) should have charitable status, thus effectively enjoying a subsidy from people much less well-off than Sherborne boys or their parents.

“I realise, of course, that others such as yourself legitimately take a contrary view and I respect, without sharing, your dedication and commitment to the school.  Looking back on my own far-off years at Sherborne, my principal memories are of the mediocrity and inadequacy of the education I received there, its philistinism, its manic glorification of sport, its shallow religiosity, the élitism of its student body and the careless brutality of its discipline.  I don’t doubt that the school has changed radically for the better since I was there in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and that there is now greater respect for intellectual, cultural and artistic activity, but I would be astonished if much of the old ethos had not survived.

“In the light of these views, you will I am sure appreciate that there is no point in you or your Foundation colleagues telephoning me to discuss the appeal, still less in members of your staff visiting me at home.  To avoid wasting the Foundation’s resources by sending me more expensively-produced (and very attractive) printed or other material in the future, I suggest that you annotate my name on your data-base as being “a curmudgeonly skinflint of apparently bolshevistic views, not worth pursuing any further“.  Sorry! But I thought your letter, if I may respectfully say so, a most impressive example of diplomatic drafting, beautifully calculated to avoid giving offence even to the  likes of me.”

Tim was prompted by this flashback to send me his own much more generous-spirited recollections of life at Sherborne in the late 1940s and early 1950s:

I had gathered from your earlier remarks that you were dissatisfied with the place, to put it mildly.  So was that other distinguished OS [Old Shirburnian], David Cornwell, a.k.a. John Le Carré, a few years before us.  I have to say that such memories as I have of Barder, B., are of an independent-minded and ebullient character who’d be unlikely to be cowed by the System.  Looking back after 53 years, I don’t think I actively disliked the place or my time there.  Mark you, I always hated returning at the beginning of every term, and to this day I cannot be in a train towards dusk of a winter’s day, street-lights coming on, the homely glow through drawn curtains, etc., without thinking ‘It’s all right, relax, you’re safe, you’re not going back to school’ (or sometimes, back to basic training or OCS after a forty-eight!).  Once I was among my fellow-sufferers it was more endurable: misery loves company.  I’m not one for reunions, college Gaudies, or the like, and have only been near Sherborne twice since I left: once for the House Supper at the end of my first term at Oxford, and once passing through with my wife not long after we were married when I put my head through the gates, encountered the same surly porter (Norton, his name was) and failed to be remembered – not surprisingly – by a passing master who’d taught me School Cert French some sixteen years before.

No, it was more a succession of annoyances and chores – compulsory Chapel and games, the torment of the weekly Corps parade (did anyone ever refuse to  serve in the JTC [Junior Training Corps? – BLB], I wonder?  It was nominally voluntary as I remember), and dull (though sufficient) food, over-ventilated chilly dormitories, bleak passages, the doorless communal lavatories, the ancient studies which were either too hot or freezing and where the air always seemed dust-laden.  Of course, it was during the immediate post-War era of rationing and coal shortage and power-cuts.  There was, too, the nuisance of fastening collar-studs with freezing fingers after morning PT; and the chafing of over-tight frayed semi-stiff collars.  I have never worn shirts with detachable collars since I left.  Also, I always eat my pudding with a spoon only, if I can:  ABG [Abe Gourlay, our Housemaster] used to throw a fit if anyone ate his pud without the assistance of a fork.  Actually, I found the place surprisingly endurable as a new boy: I’d been educated at an English-language school in Alexandria plus a year at a prep. school in Shropshire just after the War, and I think I entered Sherborne expecting a cross between Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Stalky & Co; it was good to have a term’s respite before joining the Corps, and two at Elmdene [the junior house where new boys spent their first term or two before going on to the rough and tumble of School House, Sherborne’s biggest house] before going into School House – I was lucky, I only had a term’s fagging before getting a study.

I was not conscious of any bullying – certainly not of myself, nor I think of anyone close to me.  I recollect ABG enquiring discreetly whether my contemporary P.Q., who appeared unusually subdued, was having any trouble, but whatever was bugging P.Q. didn’t last long.  There was just one instance – I think just before you came – when a boy slightly older than myself abruptly absented himself from Sherborne for several weeks of the summer term; we were adjured, just before he came back, to say nothing about it to him and I never learned whether he had had problems at school or at home.  I must state at this point that my family, and even my dear wife, have often pointed out that I tend to be self-absorbed and to fail to notice things unless they are right under my nose and concern me personally; but even I would surely have noticed any personal harassment?  Damme, I was just the sort of kid who ought to have been bullied, roasted over a fire for instance: small for my age, weedy, no good at games, unsophisticated, but bright and in a form with mostly older boys; why wasn’t I picked on?

Teaching.  No, not particularly brilliant or stimulating but geared to getting one through School and Higher Cert. and university entrance.  I certainly had enough grounding in maths, physics, and chemistry to cope with the Honours School of Chemistry at Oxford and must be grateful for this. Although little religious then and even less now, I did enjoy the Chief’s sixth-form classes on comparative religion; he seemed to know a great deal about Mohammedanism (as we called it then) and Hinduism and about the historical and archaeological background to the Old Testament.  I wish I’d kept my notes; also my Latin texts, if only for the gender rhymes: ‘Common are sacerdos, dux, vates, parens et coniux…’

Games.  I have never been an enthusiast for manly character-forming teams games (why can’t they leave one’s character alone?), and although I quite enjoyed a game of rugger on a crisp October afternoon I detested playing in the freezing mud of February.  I was never any good but was rather proud to turn out for School House B in Juniors in my last year.  My chief complaint was that new boys who like me had never played the game before were pitch-forked into it and never given any explanation about what you were supposed to do with the ball, and how, and what the rules were, if any.  Cricket I had played very little previously but liked, and always resented the fact that what little coaching was available went to those considered to be potential house or school team material.  I suppose there was a lot of emphasis on team games but, by gum, it certainly wasn’t the school so memorably portrayed in The Loom of Youth 40-odd years earlier.

Sex.  Ah yes.  Of course games reflected the grand old public-school principle: keep the boys too busy to practice unnatural vice and send them to bed too tired to entertain lewd thoughts, and give them a cold bath on rising in case they did.  The distinguished biologist Peter Medawar remarked in his autobiography, concerning his time at Marlborough ca. 1925 (which he hated), that all public-school masters are convinced that boys left to themselves for a moment will at once engage in buggery.  He also loathed the doorless bogs, and I don’t blame him.  There were alleged to be all sorts of romantic friendships, though the rumours about these were generally either vague or self-contradictory.  I don’t recall (but see earlier comment about self-absorption) that any of the people who left early had been asked to do so ‘for the sake of the other boys’.  There were, however, occasional homilies from ABG after house prayers on the subject of conduct which if pursued would infallibly lead one down the slippery slope towards a front-page appearance in the News of the World.  Also ABG announced one evening ‘with regret as a younger brother is present’ that X.Y., who had left a term or two before, had been asked to refrain from returning, on account of a letter which had come to ABG’s attention ‘without the aid of steam from a kettle’.  I imagine the letter contained a graphic description of a (hetero?)sexual tussle – rogering a NAAFI tart, perhaps – or else the complete words of the Good Ship Venus.  On the hetero side, rumour linked the occasional name with the sluttish Irish maids in School House, also with a couple of well-known young ladies of the town.  You will remember that there was no, repeat no, social contact with the Girls’ School; no dances, no theatricals; a great shame in an era when thirteen-year-olds didn’t all have steady girl friends and we could all have benefited, acquired some polish and savoir-faire, from supervised social contact.  Nowadays things are different, which is all to the good.

Curious that one of the most distinguished OS ever, the mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing, should have been homosexual; later hounded into suicide by Draconian laws.  I wonder what sort of time he had at school.

Crime and punishment.  I dislike the idea of striking children, a practice which inculcates the idea that physical power is self-justifying.  I am therefore rather surprised that I cannot wholly condemn or resent having been beaten four times, once for calling someone a bloody fool coram populo on the cricket field (the populus including ABG: ‘in front of all the little boys, Weakley…I am treating it as an lapse of judgment rather than of morals’) and thrice for accumulations of black marks for such offences as lateness, running in the corridor, and talking during Hall.  In recollection, it was quite dispassionately administered: you pressed the button a sufficient number of times and the machine operated.  At least you knew where you were.  At the giving as opposed to the receiving end, I dreaded having to supervise Hall in the day-room, as a non-prefectorial member of the sixth-form table.  I was not good at keeping order.  Once I was a prefect (and I nearly wasn’t, ABG told me as I left) it was all right.

Philistinism.  It was Matthew Arnold, wasn’t it?, for whom the aristocracy, the middle classes and the toilers were respectively the Barbarians, the Philistines, and the Populace.  Again, Sherborne in our time was not the place described by Alec Waugh.  My own impression – again, subject to correction – is that it was a fairly tolerant place: people weren’t despised for writing poetry or frequenting the Art School, even if they weren’t athletes, as long as they were modest and sociable, while intellectual capacity was sometimes positively acceptable: I recollect that winning an open Oxbridge scholarship was a matter for public congratulation (no, I didn;’t win one).  What I do remember with acute embarassment was the political conformity: leftists, if otherwise agreeable, were tolerated as eccentrics but the tacit assumption was that we, like most (all?) of our parents, supported the Conservatives.  When a boy, listening to the BBC as the 1950 election results came in, announced that ‘We’ll soon be in’ everyone knew who ‘we’ were (actually, ‘we’ lost).  I remember also the mean-spirited attitude of so many adults towards the post-war Attlee government (robbers, pampering the ungrateful working classes, giving away our Empire); would that Clem A. were with us today instead of Blair.

The Corps.  Having been in it was supposed to be such a help when you embarked on National Service.  Rubbish: all the drill and basic weapon-training, tactics, and field-craft you learned, the Army taught you – or could have taught you if it had tried – in about three weeks.  I hated the more formal parades, as for years I suffered from that maddening form of self-consciousness where – sitting, say, at the inner end of a row in Chapel – one speculates on being suddenly overpowered by nausea and having to force one’s way out with hand to mouth.  Eventually I managed to laugh my way out of that hang-up.

Religion.  One of the things one had to endure.  I don’t think I suddenly lost my faith, never fervent, in some moment of clarity; more, there was a slow realization that it was all certainly improbable and likely false although clearly a psychological prop to many.  I got confirmed at least in part because attendance at 8 am communion on Sundays let one off morning service at 11, a particular advantage if the sermon was to be in the morning that Sunday.  The only sermon I remember took as its text the OT character who killed a lion in a pit on a snowy day; clearly a good chap to be with in a tight corner.  At Oxford in my first year I had to ward off OS acquaintances who were staunch members of the Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, an evangelical organization which doubtless had a Cambridge counterpart.  One dragged me to hear that bore Billy Graham – summer of ’54, it was – and at the end everyone was glowing with an inner spiritual light and coming forward in droves to bear witness that Jesus was their friend, while I just sat there and thought I had heard more intellectually-satisfying addresses in the school chapel.

When I last looked at what the Good Schools Guide had to say about Sherborne, on the Web a year or two ago, it was clear that it had greatly improved since our time: mixed-sex Sixth form, more flexibility as to courses of study, more sensible clothes, de-emphasis on sports and religion, and so on.  However, I never contemplated sending my sons there; couldn’t afford it on a lecturer’s pay, for one thing, and dislike paying twice for my children’s education, for another.  My God, the fees are now upwards of £15,000 a year: where do people get the money?  They’re clearly not paying enough income tax!  I agree with your remarks about places with (undeserved) charitable status and wish I had the fortitude to resist appeals (not that I give much).

Dear me, how we old soldiers do run on once we start reminiscing! Sorry this letter is so long: it’s the first time I’ve been moved to set out my thoughts on my schooldays. and it’s been rather fun.  Comes of being retired and having a lot of spare time.  Trouble is, the strain of concentration makes me go red in the face, a most unpleasant feeling: hope it’s not my blood pressure playing up.  Enough for now!

I couldn’t resist a response to some of these fascinating and evocative reminiscences:

Curiously, I too was beaten at Sherborne (by ABG) for saying ‘bloody’ in a public place — I called someone, I think one of the Browns, “a bloody fool” for nearly setting fire to the studies, and Abe overheard me.  I thought the cane played a more sinister and pervasive role in our lives than your account suggests, even for those like us who experienced it fairly rarely.  One house-master in my time there (now dead, but not worth naming here) had a relationship with a junior boy which would certainly be regarded nowadays as abusive and which involved extensive use of the old rattan.  Allowing, indeed requiring, older boys to beat younger ones was, in retrospect, monstrous, although I was only very vaguely aware of that at the time. Anyway, it’s a waste of time applying contemporary ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable to the very different period soon after the second world war, so long ago. And all that at least has now long since changed forever.

I’m tickled, and flattered, that your impression of me was of an  ebullient and independent-minded boy, unlikely to be ‘cowed by the System’. I suppose I was faintly rebellious in some ways, certainly so regarded by Mickey Walford as my, and presumably also your, House Tutor (was that his role? I think so):  he was deeply suspicious of me and made it clear that he couldn’t really make me out.  I was proud of that. It probably didn’t mean much more than the fact that I cordially disliked sports, and for MMW, triple Blue and triple half-blue, international rugby player, county cricketer and Olympics hockey-player, sports were the centre of life.  But actually I did find the System pretty intimidating, as I suppose we all did, although some probably concealed it better than others.  Perhaps, looking back, my main recollection is of being intensively, almost continuously, bored. Like most boys who could read without moving their lips, I was channelled into specialising in classics, which was not exactly inspiringly taught.  From the age of 15 onwards I never had another period of mathematics (I am innumerate to this day): and at no time while I was at Sherborne was I taught any science subject, even for half an hour — no biology, no physics, no chemistry. Of course none of us ever learned any economics, politics, or current affairs. The only thing that ever struck a real spark in me during those interminable years was singing many of the great choral works in the Music Society, first as an undistinguished and untutored treble, later as an equally undistinguished bass.  Oh, and perhaps also editing The Shirburnian [the school magazine] for my last two years, which I loved doing.  But no doubt all that, or most of it, reflects more on me than on the Old School. Vivat!

Earlier in our correspondence I had asked Tim about his life after Sherborne:

You asked me what I’d been doing.  National service 1951-53 (R Hamps, seconded to KAR.  Wadham College, Oxford, reading chemistry, D. Phil 1959. Post-doc. at Boston University 1959-62, stop-gap assistant prof. 1962-63. There I met Brenda Shaw, my dear wife, a native of Maine; she was working her way through as a biology major, then went on to a Ph.D.  We were married in 1963.  Lecturer at Queen’s College, Dundee [then part of St. Andrews; Dundee University since 1966] 1963-88.  Brenda also Lecturer and Senior Lecturer at DU, in dept. of anatomy; she took early retirement in 1985 to concentrate on other interests, esp. writing (poetry, family history).  In 1987-88 I had a year’s sabbatical leave in chem. dept. at University of Oregon in Eugene; liked the department and the area very much and was very glad to have the chance to stay on as departmental x-ray crystallographer, so resigned from U of Dundee – where chem. dept. was in any case being run down – and finally retired from UO last year having turned 70.  We’re back in our old house in Dundee, which was let in our absence.  We have two sons (36 and 38), the elder married with a daughter and another kid on the way.  It was a wrench leaving the States, and I may say I agree entirely with all the positive features of that country and its people that you noted in passing in the Ephems of 12th May (how do such amiable people tolerate the present Administration and in particular its business cronyism and its totally unnecessary tamperings with the basic rights of the citizenry? – well, there are answers, but too long to go into now).  However, we did have a house (well, a ground-floor flat and garden) over here with the mortgage paid off and a fine view, a lot of old friends, and of course the young descendants.   There are many worse places than Dundee, which has come up a lot on the world as regards general amenities and has a fine site on the Firth of Tay with splendid scenery in all directions, also good medical services.  It also has the advantage of not being in the South of England commuter country, which depresses me every time I revisit it; the congestion, the cars, the urban sprawl, the double yellow lines everywhere…

I feel thoroughly out of touch with contemporary Britain, though.  There don’t seem to more than three or four names in contemporary politics that I can remember having heard back in ’87; and 17 years isn’t the full span of a political career.  I don’t understand popular ‘culture’ which seems self-centred, brutal, and vulgar.  I don’t give a damn whether celebrity W.X., whose name is unfamiliar to me, is a footballer, a singer, a supermodel, or a starlet and I dislike the sort of ‘lively’ writing in even the up-market press whose wit turns on the reader’s recognizing the names of celebs or the brand names of fashionable (and probably expensive and unnecessary) gadgets. I have no sympathy with binge-drinking – how can anyone enjoy vomiting or being out of control? – and I have never been able to understand how anyone can care which of two teams of overpaid gladiators kicks a ball into a net more times, to the point where they go out and brawl together and smash shop windows or terrify inoffensive foreigners. I am, I suppose, an old fogey: and I hope that your other correspondents don’t write at such inordinate length. Enough now!

Tim Weakley kindly gave me his permission to quote his vivid messages on my website. In the Sunday Times list of the top 500 secondary schools in the UK (21 November 2004) ranked according to A level results in 2004, Sherborne was ranked 163rd (128th out of 340 in its sector).

[1] These reminiscences of Sherborne prompted Robin Fairlie, an old friend and university contemporary, to remember his years at Fettes College at around the same time.

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