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Phyllis, Nanny and Inglis 1937

Left alone together, Phyllis and I were rather stunned. We did not quite know what to do. It was clear that the Cook and Parlour-maid must go. With our dear old Nanny, who had been left a legacy by my Father, we could soldier on together until one or both of us got married. But it was not clear what we should do with so large a house. It was obviously far too big for our purposes. There was talk of a flat - perhaps in Chelsea. Music had reached its lowest ebb in my life. I little realised how it was to become the dominant feature for the rest of my life. I was even thinking of selling our grand piano, which would hardly have been at home in a flat. I shudder to recall this now.

Then suddenly my old Headmaster, Maurice Jacks, rang me up and suggested that there might be a job for me at my old school. Gracie Hill was retiring from the School library and he wanted someone to take her place. It wasn’t a paying proposition - only £200 a year and a flitch of pork at Christmas but I was told I would be free to carry on my own work in the mornings and afternoons, when there was school, with only a few sixth-formers drifting into the Library to do work that had been set for them by their masters, and of course the giving out of borrowed books in the afternoons.

It seemed an ideal sort of job for me as I wanted time and opportunity to develop as a writer, and I liked the idea of going back to my old School where I had been very happy in my last years. I consulted Phyllis and she was also very much in favour of my accepting the post. Had not Mill Hill School been always one of my Father’s greatest interests? So I went that Summer Term of 1932 back to my old School as Custodian of the Library and took digs while I hunted for a House to which we could move during the Summer Holidays. I used to go back home every Saturday evening while Phyllis brought me back in the car for my afternoon stint in the Library from 2-5 on Sundays. She generally stayed with Mary Elliott, my old House-master’s wife and took me home on Sunday evenings ready to come back early Monday morning.

I was not Librarian. That dignified position was reserved for one of the masters. But as custodian I was virtually in charge of the beautiful Winterstoke Library with its marvellous fronds of wisteria hanging down from the windows. "My duties were few and I’m not complaining", as Desmond Murgatroyd said in Ruddigore. The Sixth Form trooped in most mornings rather more than I had expected and there always seemed to be some of them about. But they kept fairly quiet and I generally was able to get on with my writing during the mornings and school afternoons. When they went, or on half holidays I had to be prepared to write down the names of those who wanted to borrow books.

It was all very pleasant at first, and not at all arduous, but as time went on, it became more and more difficult. For one thing more and more sixth-formers came and sat down in the Library until it looked to me as though their teachers were not bothering to take them at all. Then owing to the construction of the Library there were many alcoves in which books were shelved, and as they grew used to me and found what a genial fellow I was, there was more and more whispering in the alcoves, which interrupted my private work considerably. The nickname I acquired was "Fluff". To the boys I was no more than a bit of "Fluff" and not to be taken very seriously. My old trouble of failing to make myself a Man among boys and always wanting to be "one of the boys" became only too obvious.

I found I really had to keep order when the sixth-formers came in, and this meant keeping the alcoves clear, although they could always maintain they were needing to search for a book. It was all very agreeable on a winter’s afternoon when there was an important football match which kept them all outside cheering and shouting "Mill Hill". Perhaps my sister and friends who were staying with us for the weekend would wander up and sit with me round the glorious fire. I remember Ursula Wardle and Pat Simpson sitting and conversing happily round the blaze until the bell rang for the boys’ tea and then I could lock up and return home for the night.

But then something happened that at first looked like a feather in my cap but soon turned out to be a hindrance. My novel, "The Countess’s Penny", was published. So the old Fluff had managed to write a novel and what’s more, get it published. It looked like big business at first, but of course as soon as the contents of the book began to be known and it was realised that the book was about an unfortunate schoolmaster who was not too good at keeping order, old Fluff was soon back where he was, and there was more and more whispering in the alcoves. However, what was really more important to me was that during my three years as custodian of the Library, music came flooding back to me in no uncertain ways, and I began to realise that I had come back to my old School not to help me on a literary career, as I had thought, but to make me realise that I had been right after all in wanting to make music my career.

First of all, I found that the school clarinets were not being used, so I decided to have lessons from the clarinet teacher who soon encouraged me enough to make me want to buy my own Bb and A instruments. With one of the Masters, Jimmy Whitehead, who was an excellent pianist and a Master from Belmont, the Junior School, who played the viola, I used to practise that lovely Mozart Trio, while some of the boys, especially the two Syrians, the Houranis, who played the flute and the oboe, listened from their dormitory window. I often made music with the Houranis. I wonder what happened to them? Then there was another boy called Douglas Street, who was quite a good poet. I remember setting one of his poems, "Fallow", to music. I think I still have a copy. Then Frank Probyn, the Fourth Horn in the BBC Symphony Orchestra who had a boy at the school, came and gave a vivid demonstration on the French Horn, so I must needs take lessons on the horn as well as the clarinet. I remember coming up against a certain difficulty here, the lip being a sensitive part of the horn-player’s make-up, while the clarinettist sheathed the upper lip in his teeth, sometimes making it rather bad for playing the horn. However, my clarinet teacher showed me how to get over this difficulty. A bicycle repair pad stuck on the mouthpiece of a clarinet enabled one to play without sheathing the teeth in the upper lip and this left the upper lip free for all that was needed on the horn. So I was able to be a clarinettist and a horn-player at the same time.

Meanwhile I had also started to have counterpoint lessons from my old music-master, Lawrie Cane, who was still in charge of the music throughout the School. It turned out that a school was the very best place to have all these facilities. I was setting my own Masque of Trees to music. The work in the Library was beginning to pale into insignificance. I was starting to compose and try a few things out on musical boys. Things came to a head one last day of the Easter term in 1935. As always at the end of term the boys were pining to get home and kicking their heels until the great moment should arrive when they were free to leave. The Library was the only place that was open on that last afternoon, when things were getting noisier and noisier. Masters had shut up shop long ago, and I was the only adult left on duty. Things got more and more hot and unpleasant as this last afternoon proceeded. In the end there was a regular mutiny as I commanded the boys to get out of the Library if they could not behave.

Gradually I managed to turn then out and to close the doors. I had then to face the jeering crowd and to walk through their midst. I quite expected that at any moment I would be physically attacked, but fortunately this was not so.

I marched out by the Chapel into the road along the front way intending to walk by the front way towards the front door, which would give me the easiest access to the Headmaster’s study. Some of them followed me all the way jeering and hissing. I came in through the front door and approached the Headmaster’s study. He was not in. He too had been taking some time off while I was the only adult left to carry responsibility. I found a piece of paper on which I wrote with shaking hand: "I have closed the Library and locked up. I would like to resign and leave at the end of the term."

My hand was shaking with fury as I left the paper on the writing-pad, when I came out from the School portico I felt how right it was that all this had happened as it had. I was free to do what I wanted to do, late though it was. I had taken the right step at last.

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