Music Webmaster: L.Mullenger@coventry.ac.uk
GREAT CHESTERFORD AND THE LAW
|Occasionally we took a rectory for our summer holiday, and this year
my Father decided to do the same instead of going away to a hotel. Perhaps
it was because my Mother was showing signs of her neurasthenia (as we called
it) and he thought that she might be best in a place that reproduced our
home atmosphere removed to the country.
This summer our rectory was particularly successful. Canon Doble had so large a rectory that he could use it as a cramming school for young gentlemen needing a little extra tuition into Cambridge. No doubt he charged enormous fees, for everything was beautifully arranged, with a private bedroom for every student and great facilities for outdoor amusement, with a large and beautiful garden and the river Cam flowing at the boundary, with facilities for swimming, boating and punting. The Duke of Norfolk was said to be one of the students.
This was an ideal place for our summer holiday, and my sister and I were told we could invite any number of our friends to share the amenities of this attractive place.
I cannot remember my Mother there, but I can still see my Father as the life and soul of the place. He made an admirable host at meal times, regaling a fund of witty stories. As a chartered accountant he knew everything about everything and could always give advice on any subject. My friends must have thought- how wonderful to be the son of such a father, but for me he was a difficult and dominating man.
It was at Great Chesterford that Kay Facey met her future husband, my cousin Adrian Kent. We had invited Sam and his sister together with her boy-friend, Hugh Ashdown, who still went about everywhere with her, and others of my Oxford friends, Roy Wilson and Stuart Murrie. My Father entertained us at meal times, but left us free to enjoy the amenities of the garden and the river when it was fine.
Before you can become a barrister you have to eat a certain number of "dinners" at the Hall of your chosen Inns of Court. I imagine this regulation was originally intended to prove that you at least were not the sort that threw their food about when eating!
I had chosen the Middle Temple Hall because Shakespeare is said to have performed "Twelfth Night" there before Queen Elizabeth, and because Charles Lamb had written his famous essay "In Fountain Court" situated just above the Hall.
I shall never forget the first time when I came down from Oxford to eat my first "dinner" and was suddenly approached by a stranger who put the startling question: "Are you made up?" Without troubling about the rouge on ones lips or the powder on ones nose, the right answer was "No." All it meant was: are you already a member of a foursome, and if not will you join our group to make a four? As one soon learnt, the regulation was that one must eat ones dinner in a group of four companions and only speak to them, eschewing all others as if you did not. know them. What happened to the odd three or two left over or indeed the odd man out I never enquired. The regulation certainly broke the ice between the four companions and made them bosom pals for that particular meal.
And so you sat down at the long table, saying never a word to the members of any other quartet that may have been seated by you, and waited until some excellent food and drink was brought to you. I think you had to wait until grace was said at the high table. I remember meeting some most interesting people in this way. It soon became clear that by no means all were intending to practise at the Bar. One member of one of my foursomes was a schoolmaster who was becoming a barrister merely because it helped him in prestige - perhaps to gain a headship. I remember him saying A schoolmaster is a man among boys and a boy among men" Perhaps I took this to heart when I was to become a schoolmaster for a short while.
My Father was certainly right when he maintained that "Greats" was the better preparation for taking the Law exams than "Law" itself at the University. The first paper was Roman Law and that was something easily digested by one who had studied the Classics. I forget what the next papers were about but they were not difficult to assimilate.
The remaining paper, "Real Property", was reckoned to be the most difficult of all and was generally left to the end to be disposed of by itself at the beginning of another year. Actually I became rather fascinated by the subject, which involved all sorts of historical features and odd terms like "copyhold" and "fee simple" so I did rather well in the end with this final paper, which was reckoned to be the most difficult, gaining a "First" - the only First I ever achieved in all my academic career.
Having passed the exams and eaten the requisite number of dinners, it remained to hire a wig and be "called to the Bar".
During my year at the Middle Temple I made friends with mainly Oxford men whom I had not known while there. There was Melville Kennan and Bernard Wardle, whose sister Ursula became very friendly with my sister and myself. Then there was her friend Pat Simpson, who was to become one of my closest friends.
The time had come for me to tell my Father that I was not intending to practise at the Bar. I think he knew already that I was a reprobate, for he made no attempt to find me a practising barrister to whom I could be articled - which would have been the next step. From his point of view I can see that I must have seemed a cynical reprobate. I had accepted all the training he had showered on me - public school, Oxford, the Bar, and then had turned on him and said I would go no further. But one cannot plan anothers life for him. A son has as much right to follow in his Mothers footsteps as in his Fathers.
When friends - asked him about me, he remained silent. As he once said to me: he did not handle his dirty washing in public, So I was his "dirty washing" - about the most offensive thing a son could become.
And yet he never showed me to the door or told me to get out and earn my own living elsewhere. I think it was merely that he thought he knew best how I should spend my life and especially how I might make money (a game I was certainly bad at!) He must have been devastated when he saw me, for whom he had an affection, if not Christian love or understanding, trying to earn my living in a way he saw was pretty hopeless, when he knew better how I could get on in life. As he used to say: "Young men think that old men are fools, but old men know that young men are fools."
What he failed to see was that I had inherited from my Mothers side a strong gift for music which might be combined with a gift for the music of words and might be lit with an inventive genius such as belonged to my Mothers Father.
My first job away from home was in the Summer Term of 1929, when I took a temporary term at Bromsgrove School.
A much-respected master, who took the lowest form in the school, had come into trouble with the police through happening, in all innocence, to offer a cigarette to a good-looking young policeman. disguised in plain clothes. This is unlikely to happen today, when homosexuality is more readily accepted but in those days this perfectly innocent schoolmaster was so shocked by what had happened to him that he immediately resigned and handed over his job to me, though I never met him. He was evidently a man of imagination, for he also bequeathed to me the title of my only published novel - "The Countesss Penny" his symbol was something that my form knew well and I soon heard all about it, so that it soon became something adopted in my own mind and cherished for long.
I liked Bromsgrove, but I soon found that I was no good as a schoolmaster. I was too sympathetic to the young point of view, to be able to keep discipline. As my barrister-schoolmaster had said: "a schoolmaster is a man among boys " But if he fails to be that man, he is in for it. I was far too much inclined to be "one of the boys".
Bromsgrove, like Mill Hill, was one of the most attractively situated public schools. There was nothing much in the buildings themselves, but they were grouped around a grass plateau that was high enough situated to have the most marvellous view, overlooking Bredon, the Malverns and other hills on the horizon. It was a pleasure to watch the changing lights on these wonderful hills as the day and the season proceeded, and of course there was attractive country to visit in off hours. So my summer term there was a very pleasant one, in spite of my lack of discipline, which became very painful at times. I would gladly have stayed on at Bromsgrove if I had been given the chance. But I had a lasting engagement at Brentwood School, which had a very different experience. The discipline was poor; the headmaster weak.
There was no interest in my subject, which was to teach the Classics throughout the School. I could not stand it and handed in my resignation almost immediately. As I had given practically a terms notice, it was accepted. The only thing I enjoyed at Brentwood was the walk South across the county of Essex to the river Thames with its interesting boats, steamships and cargoes being unloaded. I should add also the one friend I made at Brentwood.
At the boarding-house where I had booked a small bedroom, lived an elderly bachelor named Dick Brooks. He occupied a much more capacious room on the ground floor and had a gramophone with a considerable number of records and he would put on one of my favourites as a signal to me that he would welcome a visit in his more capacious room, to which I often resorted. He was a man of about fifty when I was twenty-four, though he looked little more than myself, and I remember thinking how old that was, little dreaming that I was to be over fifty before I married and had a family now grown-up with a family of their own!
Dick Brooks became a friend and admirer of my sister, Phyllis, thus becoming yet another thorn in my poor Fathers flesh in his last years.
I went home for Christmas that year, but was determined not to stay there. I had had enough of school-mastering in two terms and decided that what would suit me best was to coach. At least one had students who wanted to learn, rather than a rabble of unruly urchins. Of course I always hoped that I would be able to earn my living as a writer in time. The trouble about going to live in digs was that neither of my two dear Mothers wanted to lose sight of me and even my Father seemed ready to put up with me, though I was refusing to follow his advice. At this time there was just a chance of a literary man offering to take me on as a kind of articled pupil to show me the ropes in the literary world but my Father refused to stump up the required outlay though it was far less than would have been required for articling to a barrister.
I can remember one dreadful dinner at home when I broke down stammering "I want to get away from you all!" It must have been repeated in the kitchen, though it wasnt really true. The last people I would ever have wanted to get away from were my dear Mother and my dear Foster-Mother.
In those days there was a seedy part of London at the point where the Festival Hall and the National Theatre are now. This was my chosen venue. It was in the centre of London and yet cheap and vulgar. I found there some premises belonging to a blind man who had a fat girl superintending his quarters. My dear Nanny, who never questioned any of my vagaries, even when she thoroughly disapproved of them, helped me bring my things to this shabby looking spot. The windows rattled in the wind from the Thames and she stayed to help me stop them up with paper and cardboard.
When she had gone, I walked out into the night, thrilled to be living in the centre of the metropolis at so little expense, with the gardens of the Middle Temple and my beloved Fountain Court within walking distance. It gave me somewhere to sit in warm weather and then there was the Library where I could work and the canteen, which reminded me of an Oxford junior common room.
But the Waterloo Road was not exactly a good address for a reputable tutor looking for respectable students to coach, or likely to please Messrs Gabbitas and Thring, the agents through whom these respectable pupils were obtained. I must have been a strange bird of passage to my blind host and I never knew why the Fat Girl had bolted so soon after my arrival. Was it because she didnt like the look of me, or had I nothing to do with it? I was really rather sorry for my blind host who always treated me well and provided good breakfasts even after the Fat Girl had "bolted". But I had to find a more reputable address and thought I had found it when I booked with a Welsh family, though, as the blind man said, when he heard I was moving: "Theres a good and a bad end of Gower Street" I could only hope that 61, which was opposite part of London University, was the good end.
From my eyrie in the attics of 61 Gower Street I walked to All Saints Margaret Street, or rather opposite the Church, where I coached Philip Cranmer, one of the choirboys that used to sing in that High Church Choir, until it unfortunately had to be closed. I liked being with Philip Cranmer because he was the son of Arthur Cranmer who had acted as "Dalua" in The Immortal Hour, and I once met him at a performance of Julius Caesar, which the boys put on.
Another of my pupils was an "honourable" who appeared to be dealing with his own education, for I always received my cheques from himself. We were both great enthusiasts for Gilbert and Sullivan, so I always felt that I was listened to with great respect, though I learnt more about Gilbert and Sullivan from him than I could ever have taught him.
One of the strangest of my "pupils" was an Arab, much older than myself, who said he wanted someone to help him put his books in order. We never seemed to be getting down to this, and when he started saying he would take me to the theatre, I grew suspicious. Perhaps he was lonely and needed friendship but I felt worried and did not continue to go there.
Sometimes I entertained friends in the eyrie of 61, Gower Street. I was pleased when Kay Facey came to see me there with her friend. Later she married my cousin Adrian. Their daughters, Virginia and Gabriel, who is my god-daughter, are our very close friends.
Eventually I became tired of living in digs, and when I found that I was saddled with two pupils who did not know each other but lived in the same street at Richmond, which was more accessible from Wimbledon than from Gower Street, I decided to ask if I could come home where I was always welcome.
The two pupils were very different. One of them had suffered from infantile paralysis but was all there mentally. In fact he was the brighter of the two. He wanted to go to Oxford and Im glad to say that I was partly responsible for getting him accepted by Balliol College where I knew there would be every sympathy for a young man who had suffered in body. When some years later I went up to take my M.A. degree, I was able to visit him in his College rooms.
The other boy was much less intelligent, and he had a dominating mother who doted on me. She not only had me to tea before the lesson but kept me at the meal as long as she could and was unable to keep away from the lesson. Just as we had managed to get going she would appear in the background ready to interrupt all teaching with her engaging smile, so that everything one had managed to inculcate was dashed to the ground and her concerns became once more dominant.
It turned out that Mr. Green was a friend of one of my fathers friends, Dick Buckland and he used to spend much time at his Club. Meanwhile she ruled the poor boy, not even allowing him to go to the post without her interference, Another foible she had was to show me her valuables. I soon found that if I admired them, I was immediately given them. I still treasure a beautiful cut glass tumbler that came from Mrs. Green. I soon learnt to be very cautious about what I admired, or one day poor Mr. Green would have come home from his Club to find his house denuded of all its treasures.
Meanwhile I was able to teach the poor boy as much as I could. On one occasion he and I were actually sent to Stratford-on-Avon to see Macbeth, which was the set book for his School Certificate, as it had once been for mine, but the beautiful Theatre was closed for rebuilding that year and we had to see that wonderful play in a lecture-hall.
How I managed to extricate myself from the clutches of Mrs. Green I do not remember. I often wonder what happened to the poor boy. He must have cast off his Mothers leading-strings in the end. I recall one of her sayings: "We are a short time living, but we are a long time dead!"
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