Music Webmaster: L.Mullenger@coventry.ac.uk nger
|Time moves relentlessly and the hour must needs come when I had to go
out into the wide world, leave my home and family for the first time and
face life at a boarding-school. How different now that they go home every
weekend. We had to face three months of it and three months seemed a long
time at that age. I forget whether I blubbered, but I would certainly have
been comforted by my two mothers. My sister would probably have been waiting
for my Father to return from the office. She had been saved from the same
ordeal by the War, which had prevented her from being sent to Felixstowe
because it was on the East Coast and subject to bombardment. My dear foster
mother would probably have accompanied me as far as St. Pancras Station.
There I would have met the two Williamson brothers, who became such a support
By a wise provision the school had laid down that new boys should come a day before the rest of the School so that they could settle in to their surroundings before the rest arrive so that I was able to start walking round the top field flanked by a Williamson on either side. We naturally became a great source of fun to the rest of the School when they arrived, and gained a certain notoriety in this way Willy-amerson Major and Willy-amerson Minor" they used to chant. "AND GUNDRY." None of them could tell any difference between the two brothers and I was constantly in need as an interpreter, even by the masters, while for me the likeness was merely superficial.
The Williamsons and I were put in No. 2 Common-room of the School House. In those days there was the Art Room, where the unintelligent were placed, then next to them No. 2, No. 4 and No. 6 common rooms, all with their windows looking out on the road side of the building. What had happened to Numbers 3 and 5 I never enquired. These were on the North side of the corridor. On the South side, overlooking the beautiful grounds were the studies to which you attained only as you advanced in the School.
It must be said here that Mill Hill must be one of the most beautifully situated of the public schools, being founded on the gardens of the eighteenth century botanist Peter Collinson with a considerable number of rare trees like the deciduous cypress. The handsome portico, with its Doric columns, with the boys wing on the right, and the masters wing on the left, looks down on an array of playing-fields at varying slopes of the hill. To the right of the boys wing is the main quadrangle of the main working buildings, the classrooms, fives courts and Chapel on the right, Tuck Shop, Library, Murray Scriptorium, dedicated to Sir James Murray, (the lexicographer who was a master in my fathers time) and the McClure Music School straight ahead, and the Science Block (opened in my time by the then Prince of Wales), forming a three-sided quadrangle open at the western end. In the middle was a playground where, in my time, there was a game called single-handed hockey (unique to the School) was nearly always in progress, except at teaching times.
It was helpful being given a locker of ones own - somewhere to put ones few private possessions. The Williamsons and I were to sleep in No. 11 dormitory, which had been my Fathers. (He had tried to get them to give me his old school number which was 146, but it happened to be occupied, so I was given the next - 147).
In the morning we were woken up by the kindly house-master, Nick James, who piloted us down to the swimming-bath for a morning dip. I always feel proud that I was the first of the new boys to jump in, though I soon came out, so I was not such a cry-baby as my Father thought!
But when the other boys arrived in the afternoon one realised the kind of world one had got to live in. Most of them were much older than we were - some of them even eighteen and members of the "over eighteen Class" who were having special tuition in being doomed to the trenches. It was the last year of the War, 1918, and it was not realised how near the Armistice was. So we new boys, the Williamsons, myself and a few others, found ourselves living in the same quarters as boys of all ages, some of whom were young men who might be soon serving in the army. They were a motley crew. All very well for those who had older brothers, but a bit frightening for those of us like the Williamsons and myself who had no older relatives. One was constantly afraid of treading on somebodys toes. "Get out of my way!" was the angry retort constantly feared if rarely heard.
The actual classes, of course, were merely enjoyable, and this was good for scholastic achievement. The Williamsons and I soon found our way into the choir, and the Sunday Services were merely enjoyable with the beautiful ten Services compiled by Sir John McClure (most foolishly given up by the School). It was only the substitute for "home" that was questionable.
It took me very little time to realise that while No. 2 and No. 6 Common-rooms were fairly human, No. 4 was ruled by two evil geniuses, called Cats and Easterbrook.
On Sunday afternoons, instead of peacefully writing home, as was recommended, No. 4 held contests known as "ball-fights". Two combatants divested themselves of their jackets and parried each other, trying to score a hit at the others testicles. The loser was the one who had to withdraw from the contest while the other felt he had scored a "palpable hit." The loser was rendered too uncomfortable to continue. It made me feel that instead of trying to harden me by taunting me my Father ought to have given me a course of coarsening!
One day I happened to return to the common-room after tea unexpectedly early to find that my presence was not welcome. Something was going on under the table masked by the long table-cloth we had. One of my contemporaries was being forced to lie face downwards under the table while two of the older boys were holding him down and a third got on top of him. When it was all over the small boy whom I now recognised as Strachan (who was destined to be Senior Monitor in my last year) got up red in the face and very angry. "I shall probably have a temperature now," he said as he stormed out of the room. I remember one of the older boys who had been taking part said to me "I only held him down. I could not help thinking it was rather a lame remark.
I never had anything of that kind happen to me, Im glad to say, though I was not without my attractions as a small boy. On one occasion I was passing out of the corridor when another older boy was entering. We collided purposely, I felt, on his part. "Why are you so beautiful?" he exclaimed, almost angrily, and thrust me aside. I did not fully understand this at the time. But at a later age I did understand it. Good-looking trebles must have been a considerable temptation to the sixteen and seventeen year-olds.
It was the last year of the War and November 11th was approaching. When the day actually dawned, morning school proceeded as usual. But by lunch-time it had percolated that the Armistice had been signed. The afternoon started with games, but these were cancelled by the senior boys. Somebody suggested that we should march round the considerably attractive country and this idea took on. We soon formed ourselves into a long company and proceeded round the "six" or one of the well-known runs, singing and shouting "Peace has come!" It was the end of the War, of the wholesale slaughter on the front - a reprieve for so many of the older boys.
When we got back we assembled in the playground expecting to be awarded a half-holiday. What happened lingers in my memory to this day.
Whenever I pass that loggia (which I frequently do, living near my old School) I see the figure of Sir John McClure, his white hair billowing in the breeze, with a look of determination on his face, ringing that bell for school.
There was near mutiny. A sigh went up, like the sigh of near mutiny in Brittens opera Billy Budd. It is said that Sir John had been so upset by the loss of so many of his boys at the front that he could not face any kind of rejoicing at the end of hostilities. But after all, from our point of view, so many young lives had been saved that might have been lost, had hostilities continued we felt a half-holiday was due to us to celebrate such a release.
The war was over, but hostilities between No. 4 and No. 2 Common-rooms were not. Cats and Easterbrook were soon to announce that on a certain day a gang from No. 4 was intending to raid No. 2 Common-room and woe betide anyone who dared resist such an intrusion. The older boys in No. 2 seemed to take no notice, but the Williamsons and myself and a few others of the younger community decided to remove our few valuables to a safer place. Under the loggia was a basement where we kept our tuck boxes under lock and key. Here, we thought, things would be safer.
Of course the day passed and nothing happened as perhaps the older boys expected, but we youngsters remained constantly afraid that one day the threats of No. 4 might be put into practice.
At last the Christmas holidays drew near. My parents, perhaps wisely, had decided that they would not visit me during my first term, for fear of upsetting me. But it seemed a long time and a grim experience to spend three months away from home.
How different for boys today who go home every week-end and take a fortnight off in the middle of the autumn term! Do they really feel the loss of home at all?
One thing is certain: they can never know the zest with which we packed up our few belongings and went home. We left the School so early in the morning I remember arriving home in Wimbledon - right the other side of London - while my parents were still in bed.
In May I was fourteen and my voice had not yet broken. I was still a treble in the choir. It must have been during the summer holidays that I at last plucked up courage to approach my father over a matter that had been long brewing in my mind. "Daddy," I at last managed to say one evening, "I want to speak to you about something." - "Yes, dear boy, what is it?" "I would like to leave Mill Hill and take up music as a career."
It was as if the whole of G. and S. had exploded in his face. It was a bombshell - quite unthinkable - not to be considered for one moment by a Chartered Accountant who was a would-be barrister and the son of a prosperous shoe-maker. I forget what he actually said. All I can remember is that I retired to bed in tears, no doubt comforted by my beloved foster-mother. Of course it would have been foolish to leave school so soon; and where would one have found musical instruction at that age? But I was not to have such thoughts at the time. All I could think of was the horror of returning to Cats and Easterbrook for another year, and my Father had never even heard of their existence.
Evidently my Father told my Mother about it, who would have been more sympathetic and understanding, remembering that her own mother had been a composer and her father an inventor. It was perfectly possible that I had inherited a special gift for composing from them, for as she often said: "A gift is sometimes passed down leaving out a generation, so that it reappears in the grandchildren." So she was determined to give me a test for my musical ability.
Unfortunately the test she did give me was not a valid one, so that I was not given the right answer and music remained locked up in my breast until after her death and that of my Father.
There was a professional musician called Colin McAlpine who visited Wimbledon occasionally to accompany a neighbour who fancied himself as a Wagnerian tenor and sometimes called on us to give my Mother some musical support. On one occasion I found myself called in to undergo a test of my musicianship. All he did was to ramble on the piano while I stood the other side of the room. Occasionally he would sound a note and ask me what it was. It was merely a test on whether I had perfect pitch. As I had no perfect pitch I could give him no answer. He continued improvising, changed key and again asked what note he was sounding. If I had known a bit more about music, I could have replied: "I havent the faintest idea", as Elgar said to the friend who stopped him in the street and sang him a note, saying What note is that, Mr. Elgar?" If I had known what the youngest student of music knows, I could have put Colin McAlpine on the spot. But unfortunately I didnt, so I was proved the ignoramus myself.
Perhaps it was as well that things turned out as they did, for my Mothers test seemed to corroborate my Fathers decision. It might have led to a serious rift between them, had she supported my plea for music while he was so set against it. As it was he did all he could to encourage my literary leanings not realising that this too could become an enemy to the Law, as it did in the end, just before he died. But at present he must have been thinking that a gift for writing chimed well with the life of a barrister, especially in the early years, whereas a gift for music was wholly antipathetic. Not that he was unmusical himself. He came of a musical family that lived next door to the Baxes and had been a fair cellist in his youth. His brother, my Uncle Alfred, had been a near professional violinist. But when I asked if I could have lessons on his discarded cello, he refused because he thought I had too much music.
I went back to Mill Hill that autumn to find to my horror, that Cats had been made monitor and Easterbrook prefect of No. 11 Dormitory where the Williamsons and I were still sleeping. Cats was fairly aloof and only came to bed late, but Easterbrook was really the more vicious of the two and determined to pester us as much as possible. Just as we had settled down for the night after a hard day at games and in the classroom, he would have us out of bed, if only to assert his authority as a Prefect. He favoured a race, with a slippering for the one he thought indolent in the race. I used to dread going to bed every night and it cast a gloom over the whole evening.
I remember once the master on duty happened to call in our dormie. The Williamsons and I did our best to delay him as long as possible, knowing that Easterbrook would not dare have us out of bed while he was around.
To add to my discomfiture that term it happened to be the time when I reached puberty. Of course nobody had told me what to expect, least of all my father, so that it all came as rather a shock. It must be the most extraordinary and drastic transformation in human life. A girls puberty must be bad enough and more lasting, but at the time the boys is more violent. From being a charming treble, he is suddenly transformed into a gawky oaf with a voice that alternately squeals up in the air and then falls down into the boots. To add to his discomfiture he blushes violently whenever attention is called to him. I found this blushing one of the worst symptoms of all. Even when I returned home at Christmas, after I had got used to most of the changes, when my voice was beginning to settle down, I found this blushing most uncomfortable. If anyone made an allusion to me, I would find myself getting redder and redder in the face, as if I were guilty of some terrible crime.
It must have been during the Easter holidays of that year that my father drew my attention to the Old Millhillians Literary Prize. It was a Prize offered annually, either in prose or verse, that showed some imaginative gift, different from the School essay. The Old Boys chose a few subjects that they thought might fire young imaginations, allowing anyone to suggest a subject of his own.
Among the subjects for this year was "Adsum" - the cry with which each boy answered the roll-call as he entered hall for a meal, generally reduced to "Ads". I cannot remember how I tackled this subject, and my Father did a version of his own, from which I probably cribbed. At any rate I won the prize and this helped to fuel my literary ambition (music being now tucked away for the time).
At the end of the Summer Term we had to face the School Certificate, in which I did well, gaining the five credits which were the equivalent of Matric. I came back in the Autumn term to find myself a member of the Classical Sixth with a passport to walk over the School House corridor to the studies which overlooked the beautiful grounds.
It was then that I became a dreamer, for the Higher Certificate, which was the next exam, seemed such a long three years away as hardly to exist. The members of the Classical Sixth spent the whole day in the Library with "Jon-Jon", the Classical Sixth Form Master. He had one older pupil for whom he was trying to get a scholarship at Cambridge, and the rest of us were new-comers. He naturally spent most of his time on the scholarship candidate, giving us pieces to look at by ourselves, then turned to us in due course.
This suited me as I wanted to day-dream. One of the set books in the School Certificate had been Shakespeares "Macbeth" and I couldnt help seeing how effective an opera on this subject could be. It is a pity Verdi did not wait until near "Otello" before he tackled the subject. But I probably did not know at that time that there had ever been an opera on Macbeth and I could not help planning one in my mind. I used to do it when I could not sleep, as well as in the library when we were supposed to be struggling with a classical text.
Suddenly I would wake up to find Jon-Jon turning from the scholarship boy to us lesser fry, but there was usually some other person to hold his attention while I collected myself and pored over the passage that we had been given.
What troubled me was that classical students appeared to be more interested in textual criticism than in appreciation of the literature. They indulged in finding some awkward passage in the text where perhaps some copyist had made a blunder and there were all sorts of emendations recommended by different editors. Classical appreciation was mainly taken up with a discussion of these emendations rarely on an appreciation of the original literature.
Had I known it, there was a whole world of fascinating interest ready to be explored. Greek was a quantitative language and this meant that the Choruses, which were sung and danced by the ancient Greek boys, could be brought to life at any rate in their rhythm, leaving only the melodic line to be supplied. If only Jon-Jon had known, since he knew that I was interested in music, he could have called my attention to this and given me a whale of a time copying out the choruses from the dramas and setting them to crotchets and quavers in the fascinating rhythms of the original dance-songs - dochmiacs, paeans, etc. But this was like one of my day-dreams, and all we had to chew on was the different texts that the editors suggested as emendations. No wonder I continued to dream and made little headway as a member of the Classical Sixth.
Although I was still only fifteen and was obviously no good at games, the authorities had their eye on me as a possible prefect. In particular A.P., Annie Pearse, the Lady Resident (a glorified matron) looked with favour on me (another mother!) especially as I was the son of a Governor of the School. Unfortunately they made me a prefect too soon (before I was even sixteen) when there was another boy, older than myself who thought he was more qualified than I was for promotion; and to add to my difficulties, I found myself appointed prefect to his dormitory. So my life for those two terms became a hell. I was not good at keeping order and I found myself in charge of someone older and more qualified than myself.
While I was at school aged about sixteen, there was a boy named Goyder, older than I was, who was the first person, we understood, to receive a wireless signal from America. With the help of our physics master, Mr. W.H. Brown, Buster as he was familiarly called, Goyder stayed up until the early hours of the morning to receive this pre-arranged first signal from the U.S.A. So this was a very important occasion in the history of wireless.
At last my two final years dawned and I was put in charge of a small dormitory of new boys who were only too glad to be left alone, without a monitor above me and with a window overlooking the grounds I shall never forget those summer evenings. It was the time of the Celtic Twilight and The Immortal Hour was running at the Regent Theatre. I little realised that one day Rutland Boughton would become one of my friends. How I worshipped that opera! I went to see it innumerable times and that summer, which must have been a fine one, I used to lean out of my dormie window in the twilight dreaming of the future that I still hoped to be mine, overlooking the beautiful country spread out below.
At the end of my third year we had an end of term play (for some reason there had been no dramatics before) and I discovered that I was an actor. I felt completely at home on the stage and quite able to hold an audience with words and gestures. One is either gifted in this way or not and it became quite clear to me that I had the gift.
Thereafter there was always a part for me in all the shows we put on. I was even asked to take a leading part in a play that one of the masters put on in the Grove Garden during my last term. This quite unhinged me. The sixth form work on the Classics had always been a stumbling-block to me, while I could always shine as a musician, a literary man or an actor. I simply could not get down to the hard grind of mastering a classical text.
You "A level" candidates know nothing of the difficulties we suffered when the equivalent of three or four of your "A"s were bunched together. How much easier it must be to take Latin one year and Greek the next, or divide them with the interval of a month apart than to be forced to take the whole bang lot within one week.
I left the School with flying colours. I was a monitor, the editor of the Magazine, the winner of the Literary and music prizes, the leading actor. I thought I had done quite well in the Higher Certificate, in spite of everything. It was a terrible shock to me to learn in the last month of the summer holidays that I had failed the Higher Certificate!
|Return to Chapter 3||
Music Front Page