“Forty years on, when afar and asunder, parted are those who are singing today. When you look back and forgetfully wonder, what you were like in your work and your play”. Those words still ring true as a piece of poignant prose. ‘Forty Years On’ has for many years been the alma mater song of Harrow School, an institution that was never on my short list of potential seminaries. I did, however, attend Harrogate Grammar School in North Yorkshire, where, amongst other things, I was taught to warble choral airs. In order to reaffirm my past presence in these most hallowed of portals, the Grammar School Class of ‘63 reunited over the first weekend of this past month. Actually, in my case, it was the Class of ‘61. Unlike the majority of my fellow adherents, I didn’t stick around long enough to take A-levels and enter the Oxbridge fast-track. I’d already showed my true colours the night before my GCE exams, when I chose to go dee-jaying at a record hop rather than revising. To my parents’ horror, it was obvious I was going to study at the School of Rock & Roll rather than pursue a career in physics, finance or the rag trade.
HGS, to use the appropriate colloquialism, was founded in 1903, and it achieved Grammar School status when the current building was erected in 1933. Crowned by a majestic clock tower, it is quite an edifice and looks more than impressive through a camera lens. The reunion attracted folks from far and wide, with some of us flying over from the States. Others came from Europe, and there was no shortage of locals who probably had a better chance of recognizing one another after such a long time. By and large, we turned out to be a pretty lively bunch. Mercifully, there wasn’t a vegetating Victor Meldrew amongst us. But that very area is where the problem so often lies. There’s always the risk of a homecoming turning turtle, simply because some people do change. We all know the comedic clichés that were invented to raise our hopes then dash them. Take for instance the tale of ‘Ginger’ Johnson, who was once the life and soul of the party. He became an evangelist. Then there’s ‘Chalky’ White. He ended up marrying Doreen Smith, the legendary raver who was once queen of the back row at the ABC cinema.
When our tour of the premises eventually got underway, it didn’t take long before we were awash in a sea of nostalgia and fanciful flashbacks. This was, quite naturally, par for the course. In fact, it wouldn’t have been the same had we not been able to tap into that wonderful vantage point known as hindsight. Our unfolding thoughts suddenly intensified when the school’s one-time dress code came up in conversation. It’s hard to believe now, but the males of the species were expected to don a striped cap similar to that worn by the Fat Owl of the Remove, Billy Bunter. This would be paired with a blazer which was little short of the Ralph Lauren designs that have recently been adopted by the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club. As for the girls, their jaunty berets had a distinct air of the French Resistance about them and their red gingham dresses brought to mind visions of tablecloths from a Texas diner. In those far off days there was never any likelihood of favouritism or preferential treatment. So woe betide if a prefect caught you without your official headgear or your buttons undone.
Greeted at the main entrance by dignitaries from the present day, we immediately felt at home when the school / town motto came into view. By way of explanation, “Arx Celebris Fontibus” translates from its Latin origination into “A citadel famous for its springs”. I never could figure out what this meant in terms of the school, but it did at least form an endorsement of the region’s health spas. Not in view, but certainly in the mindset, was a roll call of nicknames that we’d once bestowed upon our tutors from decades past. First of all there was ‘Eggzar’, the mad maths master. Then came ‘Pinhead’, our intrepid physical training coach. ‘Taffy’ Webber, the traditionalist music teacher whose world revolved around Jean Sibelius, once put yours truly in detention for having the temerity to utter the words Rock & Roll in class. Thereafter came ‘Oscar’ Christie, the camp Scottish art master, whose namesake Oscar Wilde once stated that “Education is a process which makes one rogue cleverer than another”. And finally there was our beloved headmaster ‘Bert’ Carr, a man deserving of yet another quotable quote. “Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested”. So said the wise Sir Winston Churchill in his book, ‘My Early Life: A Roving Commission’.
Sadly, the school bike sheds have disappeared, and so too has the girls gym. This was where the forward thinking P.T. mistress, Miss Duckworth, used to allow pupils to jive on Wednesday lunchtimes to the latest records. The site is now home to a brand new carbon-friendly Sixth Form block, where the restaurant serves wholewheat pizza and organic juices. It’s all a far cry from mashed potatoes with black bits sticking out, and Jam Roly-Poly pudding and custard with the skin still on top. Samuel Johnson, the English lexicographer and learned writer, once proclaimed, “There is less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there. So what the boys get at one end, they lose at the other”. Like the visionary Mr. Quelch at Greyfriars and Miss Millicent Fritton at St. Trinians, ‘Bert’ Carr wasn’t averse to administering a spot of corporal punishment if the situation so required. But no one really had the caning thing down quite like Professor Jimmy Edwards at Chiselbury. Who could forget those immortal words he so frequently expounded at his seat of learning: “Bend over, Wendover!” Yes, these were the happiest days of our lives.