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PREP SCHOOL AND
GILBERT AND SULLIVAN
Inglis aged 10
Wimbledon boys were sent either to Rokeby as their Prep. School or to Kings College (if they were intended to continue there until they were eighteen). As I was scheduled for Mill Hill School (where my father had been) I was sent to Rokeby.
My Prep School years nearly corresponded with those of the 1914-18 War, except that I had a first year there before the War began.
In the Second Form I learnt to chant all the Latin tenses, which I still could do after eighty years. One cannot help wondering if the modern difficulty in spelling is not due to changes in education which had proved their value for centuries.
From the Second Form we migrated up some steps to the Third Form in a separate room. There I met a lady who gave instruction in sketching or landscape painting. She happened to know my Mother, who was an experienced artist, so looked upon me as a promising pupil. This was all the instruction I ever had in what was to become a valued hobby some forty years later.
In the third form room we were next door to the Headmasters study, which enabled us to count the number of strokes received by any unfortunate culprit. I remember one boy, East, coming back red in the face and with tears in his eyes. We could tell him that he had had six strokes of the cane in the next room. The method was for a master to send for the "black book" and give a boy a bad mark. I think it was three bad marks in the Black Book that entailed a summons to the Headmasters study.
The fourth and fifth Forms were in an outhouse adjoining the Gym, and one reached them in final years when perhaps one was due to sit for a scholarship exam. There were three of us down for Mill Hill, the Williamson Brothers (who were identical twins) and myself. Two of us managed to get scholarships and one of the brothers an Exhibition - much to the amazement of our teachers who had not expected such success.
The War was still on when we left in the summer of 1918. As a small boy of nine I had gazed at myself in a large mirror we had on our landing, smiling at the exciting thought of a war. I was too young to be expected to take part in it myself, and my father too old to be called up, so I could sit back with the excitement of pinning coloured flags on a map of Flanders when there was news in the papers of an advance or retreat. In other ways I was completely unaffected by the First World War, except for the rationing and the invention of some horrid stuff called "margarine", which had an unpleasant tang and purported to be a substitute for butter, which was in short supply. The War afforded some excitement to a small boy in the form of air-raids when perhaps he was brought down from bed in the middle of the night and it was certainly very exciting to see a zeppelin ablaze in the midnight sky. No wonder those airships proved such a failure.
By far the most important thing that happened to me during my Prep School years and during the War was my introduction to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. I am wondering how the DOyley Carte company managed to keep going but keep going they did, and my family was one of their keenest supporters. I shall never forget the moment when my father handed me a libretto of The Mikado during the interval of a performance of the same. My Father had been one of the original Savoyards and he must have been glad to see his son following in his footsteps, but he can little have suspected how strong this infatuation was to become and what a fundamental effect it was to have on me. I became absolutely mad about Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Nobody could stop me from spending all my pocket money on those blue books that contained the words of these almost sacred works. I counted the number of words in several of them - such a degree of reverence did it lead me to. And my Mother had the vocal scores of The Gondoliers and The Mikado on her piano scores that I still have in my possession, though not now treated with the same reverence.
But it is clear, looking back, that the fifteen operas I was to write during my lifetime had their origin in this early enthusiasm, however much it was to be affected by the later influence of Purcell, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and the mediaeval liturgical drama.
The day when I had got to go to boarding-school was coming nearer and nearer. I kept on putting off the thought of it but, for my Father, time had no such convenient lingering and he wanted to prepare me for the ordeal which he knew was awaiting me. I was an obvious Mothers Darling, and I had to be hardened somehow or other. Actually I was able to hold my own quite well had he known it. What I needed was a course of coarsening rather than hardening.
In my Fathers day it had been usual for new boys to be made to sing a song. So I was duly ordered to learn a song. He chose "Tit Willow" from The Mikado. As it turned out I was never asked to sing a song. Things had changed since my Fathers day.
Our summer holidays had usually been at Saunton in Devon, or St. Ives in Cornwall, but now when it came to the fourth year of the War, my Father thought we should go somewhat nearer afield. So we booked for Fairford in the Cotswolds.
My Fathers method of hardening me in preparation for a public school was to taunt me and so reduce me to tears if possible. I remember one occasion we were in a boat on the river and I was given the task of piloting the boat in a steady direction. When I failed to do this, I was taunted unmercifully until I was reduced to tears which was never to happen at my public school.
On another occasion - a lesson in independence - a carter was persuaded to take me on a trip to Cirencester. When we got there I was told to wait in the street until he was ready for the return journey to Fairford. This was supposed to toughen me in independence, so that I would not be afraid of being left alone. The carter duly told me to wait for him until he was ready to return.
I waited in the square for what seemed hours on end, afraid to wander far lest my carter might return and find me absent. I remember the tediousness of the whole affair. I waited and waited, often thinking that I had been abandoned and would never see my family again. At last the carter did return and I was told to hop up on the cart. I can remember to this day what a relief it was not to be entirely forgotten. But how this grim experience served to harden me for my public school I still fail to understand.
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