There are probably two main reasons a guy might go to his old housemaster’s memorial service. One would be to make sure they really did nail the coffin lid down before burning him. I’m very glad to say I went for the other reason – to say goodbye and pay my respects to a man who made a huge impression in my life. To judge from the packed abbey last Saturday, he did that in a lot of other lives too.
Bill Cooper was housemaster of Westcott House, Sherborne School, from 1966-1981, meaning he stood down at the end of my O-level year. As a young man he was a gifted athlete and sportsman, a Cambridge Blue indeed, and a promising engineer, until at the age of 21, as a Lieutenant with R.E.M.E. serving in India, he was struck down by polio and spent the rest of his life with his leg in a brace. Rather than bemoan his lot he quietly changed his aspirations, retrained as a geographer and went into academia, all apparently with the uncomplaining, quiet optimism that I remember from meeting him over 30 years later. As one of the tribute-givers explained, he believed in original sin – he knew the world wasn’t perfect, never would be, and learned not to be too taken aback when things turned out other than he would have wanted.
That’s just as well for all sorts of reasons, not least for the future happiness of the teenage Ben, because he never lost one jot of his interest in sport. Westcott lived and breathed it. I strongly suspect he was more than a little taken aback by the difference between what he thought he was getting in me and what actually turned out. The six-foot son of an SAS veteran … He wasn’t the first to make the erroneous assumption that I must ipso facto (a) be good at rugby and (b) want to be. Neither were ever remotely the case – though having heard, on Saturday, precisely what kind of career the polio nipped in the bud, for the first time I could almost feel ashamed of it. Almost.
So it’s fair to say that while he was always friendly and encouraging, he plainly didn’t know what to do with me. His report at the end of my first term said that I obviously had my own furrow to plough. (Years later, I was delighted to read that the equally unsporty – though, unlike me, very athletic – Alan Turing’s housemaster had said exactly the same thing about him – and Alan Turing had also been in Westcott, 50 years earlier.) But he was wise enough to spot the reality very early on and he never leaned on me – it must be that original sin thing, again – and that made my school years a lot happier than they could have been.
Because, you see, there was so much more to him than just the sport. Occasionally a boy who hadn’t met him before would mistake slow of body for slow of mind, but very rarely twice. You could talk to him about anything, and he would talk knowledgeably back. He was a gifted and cultured man – a talented amateur artist in his own right, a connoisseur of the arts generally. Around 1990 I went to a party he was hosting in London to mark his retirement from teaching: it had to be in London because he and his wife were sitting through the entirety of the Ring Cycle at Covent Garden over the space of a few nights. He learnt early on that I was a voracious reader and gave me all the encouragement he could. If he had known I also harboured literary aspirations, I’m sure he would have been just as encouraging in that too: he was delighted to learn that I had become a published author.
He knew exactly what was going on, and where, and when, and wasn’t fooled for a moment by, say, those oddly tobacco-like smells drifting on the breeze from the nooks and crannies of Westcott that his disability barred him from. He was also aware, as he once put it, that with Sherborne Girls School a five minute walk away, “Life at Westcott was never entirely … monastic.” Another of the speakers spoke of his glee at actually catching boys misbehaving – it wasn’t malicious, it was just the sportsman acknowledging that he had fairly won this round. The shuffling sound of his progress around the house – which now I come to think of it, had an inordinate number of steep and long staircases, which must have been an ordeal he never let on about – could strike fear into the hearts of the guilty. He was like those two old ladies in Ankh-Morpork (I forget which book) who never break out of a slow shuffle but who are deeply feared because they will always, inevitably, catch up with their victim.
The last time I saw him was 10 years ago at a friend’s wedding, where I was an usher. Said friend was a relative of Bill’s, so had also been in Westcott. By this time Bill was mostly confined to a wheelchair, and at one point I and the other usher had to help him out of it. We were doing our best, which wasn’t very, until Bill told me bluntly (but with that gleeful grin, again) “You’ll have to get your hands under my thighs.” I muttered to my friend later that I never expected (a) to be fondling my housemaster’s backside, (b) at his request, and (c) to be thanked for it.
RIP, Bill. To quote the epitaph by Robert Burns, read out by his nephew:
“If there’s another world, he lives in bliss;If there is none, he made the best of this.”