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.”

The Bens 2012

I really must blog more. A time-, soul- and hope-consuming freelance project is drawing thankfully to an end so hopefully there’ll be more time after that …



Meanwhile, the Bens 2012 have been announced, for various classes of movie watched by Ben in 2011. The motto of the Ben Academy is it’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it (or as Google Translates assures me, circa quod non est suus, suus est de modo.



Best movie:



And the winner has to be The Girl. The entire Millennium trilogy was energetic, atmospheric, well acted and generally fun, dammit. It didn’t help the others on the short list that I already knew their story in advance, whereas in the Girl movies you honestly feel almost anything could happen. And it very often does.

Best actor:

  • Bob Hoskins
  • Colin Firth
  • Wall-E

And the winner is Bob Hoskins, for The Long Good Friday, of which you will be seeing more of in these awards. Colin Firth played George VI very well (despite being almost the age George was when he died) and, like Wall-E, manages to tug on the heartstrings by sheer power of performance. Hoskins on the other hand does everything in his power to be horrible, yet in the famous ending you still can’t help but feel sorry for him. A little. The emotion and unspoken, facial acting of those last two minutes is astonishing.

Most unexpectedly good:

These are the movies I didn’t have very high hopes of, but ended up watching for various reasons not worth going into. Despicable Me is an enjoyable Pixar-clone.Shrek gets a mention for finally pulling the series out of the third movie’s slough of despond, but honestly guys, enough is enough.

And the winner is Keeping Mum, a film I’d not heard of before and wasn’t too hopeful about when I did: Rowan Atkinson has a vicar? Okay-y-y-y … Yet not only is his character very sympathetic and not at all a clown-vicar, he actually comes up with a couple of quite deep Christian insights. He is admittedly helped out by Maggie Smith as a dotty, loveable serial killer.

Least predictably ‘meh’ sequel:

Quite an easy one here. Dawn Treader had its moments – I liked the way they continue to link the real-world sections to the War, and managed to get the other kids in too with quite acceptable plot jiggery pokery, but otherwise it just continues the series’ slide into computer gamery. Tron was a noble effort and also had its moments, but the improved graphics paradoxically work against it – the charm of the old wireframes, or whatever they were, is lost in a faithful CGI rendition. But Wall Street actually pulls some surprises out of its hat.

Best film where the actors are clearly loving every minute, and so is the audience:

It can only be The Long Good Friday. It is helped by the fact that the other two contenders, while good and fun, are essentially star vehicles, whereas none of the stars of TLGF (Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, whosit from Casualty, Piers Brosnan as First Irishman) were famous. No one could have quite known then who would go on to be Oscar-winning Hollywood superstars and who would continue to be whosit fromCasualty for the rest of their natural.

Best movie with Jeff Bridges:

He is an actor of considerable range: all five performances (Tron has two) are quite different from each other, even if his character in Goats does recycle the Dude – a role he plays extremely well. But Jagged Edge wins for the did he/didn’t he plot and the eloquent, deadly charm of his character.

Best old friend, watched again:

Winner: once again, after long deliberation, The Long Good Friday (see above) withThe Ipcress File a very close second: a wonderful low budget, very sixties, non-Bond spy drama. Apart from the minor detail that Gordon Jackson’s character dies, it’s easy to believe this is from the early, pre-CI5 career of George Cowley.

Most unexpected underage male teen nudity that I bet wouldn’t be allowed on screen nowadays:

Nuff said. Seriously, I am astonished it was legal then and presumably continues to be now – like, I was able to buy the DVD and there’s no warnings on the case. Possibly in case it becomes a collector’s item for the wrong type of viewer.

Funniest football scene:

Also. Sport is a subject I find very hard to find funny, but see if you don’t believe me for Brian Glover’s finest moment (and no nudity at all, thankfully).

Read and watched in 2011

For the record …

Gave up on: