Schola Nostra Sedes

Be warned, this is a long post. Last weekend, BBC2 broadcast A Very English Education, looking back at a 1979 documentary filmed at Radley College, and catching up with some of the boys they had filmed. It reawakened memories of my own public school experiences…

I have to say, I hadn’t realised quite how relatively progressive Sherborne was. We were allowed comics (2000 A.D.! If I had been denied that, maybe I would now be as successful as James Lovegrove). We didn’t have to wear jacket + tie + scholastic robe … though Radley is of course within spitting distance of Oxford, and being as snobbish as most public schools I suspect it was easily over-awed by and trying to emulate superior rank. We even saw girls from time to time, from the girls school, dressed in uniforms scientifically designed to be as unsexy as possible.

But for all that …

I didn’t write everything below since yesterday; it was previously written and looking for the right time and occasion. So here it is. And if you’re really into the public school zone, check out my story “Pages out of order” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 1997). So far boys from three different schools have all told me they recognise their old place …

* * *

Prep school was all contained within one house. Sherborne had nine boarding houses scattered around town, never more than a brisk five minute walk away. The centrepiece of the entire town is the sandstone Norman abbey. The school, which had already existed for centuries, was given its official charter by Edward VI and grew out of the old monastic community on the abbey’s north side. The courts, a wide open, gravelled spaced, are the core of the school. Around them are most of the classrooms, the library, the chapel, the administrative buildings and the original School boarding house. A mini-campus spreads away from this core, gradually merging with the rest of the town. This contains the science and arts blocks, the sports centre, various theatres and music schools and of course the gloriously (and accurately) named Central Feeding. Quite recently, in my time, boys had eaten their meals in their houses as well as studied, slept and lived generally. Now the Feeding was officially Centralised.

The school is entwined inextricably with the town, like tares and wheat growing in the same field. The roads through the school centre are public rights of way. Thus at any time of day, if not actually sitting in a classroom, you are likely to see other people. Just by its very being, Sherborne begins to tear down the barriers put up by an insular little prep school set in its own grounds.

I got off to a good start – or rather, didn’t – with the New Boys Test. This varies from house to house and year to year – there is a general format that covers things it really is necessary for a new boy to know, but also a good deal of leeway allowed to the prefects who set the questions. There are things like the names of the houses plus their colours and the shorthand letters that identify them, names and nicknames of the housemasters, and words and tune of the school song. (Which I still know, in Latin, including the rousing chorus of ‘Vivat Rex Eduardus Sextus!’. Even at the age of 13 this struck me as lagging a little behind current affairs.) Who is the head of which department; where is such-and-such classroom … useful stuff. Then it got a little more arcane, with the complex system of colours, socks, scarves and blazers that designated the various teams and which I never got the hang of, or interested in, in five years. (As I can rattle off the ranks and insignia of several armed forces around the world, plus several generations of Starfleet (sad but true), this shouldn’t have been a problem: the difference is probably that I care, or have cared, about these whereas I couldn’t give a syphilitic monkey’s shrivelled left testicle for the games outfits and their significance.)

And then there were the unique variations introduced by the prefects. In our year, for instance, there was a curriculum of questions based on a set text taken from a porn magazine.

The system in my house, Westcott, ground to a shuddering halt in my last year when prefects drawn from my contemporaries set the questions. New boys were apparently required to demonstrate how to masturbate, using a bottle as a prop. One boy’s slightly garbled account to his parents suggested he had been told to masturbate into a bottle. The phone line to the housemaster glowed red hot and furious. Thereafter, I believe, the housemaster set the questions himself.

I failed the New Boys Test, and I failed the one permitted retake. The punishment for this – and a good many other things – was Calling. You dress up in your suit and wake the prefect on duty first thing in the morning, who then supervises you having a cold shower for an arbitrary period. Then you change into your games clothes, have another cold shower, change back into suit, another cold shower … I forget how many cycles this went through, and it probably depended on the prefect in question. I managed to irritate mine by taking too long between changes; he was furious to find I was actually drying myself before putting on the next set of clothes.

But this was a mild inconvenience, no more. You didn’t have to do a second retake of the test; you were just officially written off as useless, which suited me fine. I could get on with my life and all the other things I was useless at.

Like, sport.

No one, even once in the ten years of my private education, took the time to sit down with me and try and enthuse me about sport: maybe explain why it was desirable to be good at it, how I might have a future in it, in what ways a sporting ability could be cultivated. Instead, my ability and interest were simply taken for granted. It was always just assumed that I would enjoy it and be good at it. Why? Why is it remotely important how good someone is at kicking an inflated bladder around a field? More often than not in the freezing cold and pouring rain? Why?

To this day, I remain in near-complete ignorance of the sporting world. Unless it’s seriously intrusive upon normal TV viewing schedules, for example Wimbledon or the Olympics, I generally don’t even know that some great event or other is happening. Nor am I the least bit interested when I find out.

Oh, I could do it. I could go into the second row of a scrum – which I’m sure contributed to chiropractic problems that last to this day – and have my head ground between the forwards’ pelvises, but strangely I never did enjoy it (if God meant the second row to exist, why aren’t human skulls made of steel and why don’t sweaty rugby shorts smell nice?) and my motivation was zero.

I had guessed Sherborne would be different to prep school, the work harder. But then, prep school had got gradually harder too, at a reasonably challenging rate as you got older. I had never been academically great, but not academically bad either. I had just about got the balance between my natural laziness and the demands of school work. So, I projected ahead on the curve that had already been established, and I catastrophically didn’t disengage my prep school cruise settings until much too late.

Time and time again I simply failed to realise how much work something would be and didn’t allow enough time to do it well. Science in particular was very different. Chemistry at prep school had been about mixing up saturated solutions of copper sulphate and making crystals on bits of string, or bubbling CO2 through limewater to see what happened. Chemistry at Sherborne was about atoms and protons and electrons and molecules. I simply didn’t pay enough attention in the first few lessons that laid the groundwork, and I set myself back for the next three years, when I could finally scrape an E at O-level and give it up forever.

Maths was just more of the same, but ratcheted up a level. Likewise French and Latin, with more complex translations and more words to learn, which I didn’t bother learning because I thought I knew them. The only subject I could take and run with was English.

The punishment for sloppy work, where the potential for doing better was detected, was a blue – usually a repeat of the assigned work, initialled by the housemaster at the start and the end of the job to show he was aware of it. The date of the blue given was noted down on a copy of the house list in the housemaster’s study. Most names had a few against them; for me, they had to start a new line.

The situation could be recovered, and it was, by the penny dropping and my starting to work. Slowly, but surely, I lifted myself off the bottom. My marks improved. Chemistry was the only subject in which I remained rubbish. I must have done better in the other sciences because grading for the six classes of the Fourth Form, 4S1 through to 4S6, was based upon your ability in science –– and at the end of the first year I learnt I was to go into 4S4. In other words, there were two whole classes of boys who were worse at science than I was.

After a shaky start, I finished my Third Form year feeling pretty good. Going back to school in September 1979 was like slipping on an old glove. It was familiar and comfortable, but best of all, we were all one year older and several inches taller than the new batch of squeaky voiced Third Formers.

So, by and large I was happy at Sherborne. Most people appreciate honest effort and integrity, and public school is no different. I was useless at games, but I still tried. I took up scuba diving and joined the CCF; neither of which would ever be ways into the heart of the Westcott sporting establishment but it still showed a certain effort. In the CCF I rose to the grand rank of Sergeant, with marksman badges in two kinds of rifle (.22 and SLR) and solo glider wings.

I was considerably better off than Smythe.

That wasn’t his name but it’s what I’ll call him. I don’t know why Smythe was so picked on. We were in the same intake for Westcott. He also failed to fit in. Maybe his failure is that he tried, and tried badly, making the failure more noticeable. I don’t know. I do know I didn’t particularly like him myself – too cocky, a sense of humour that I just found immature – but I was always prepared to be civil, to live and let live. Others weren’t, least of all one of the more popular members of our year who was open and unforgiving in his loathing.

Smythe singled himself out within the first week. I didn’t witness the incident but I heard of it; while everyone was joshing about homosexuality (a frequent topic), he said to one boy, ‘do you mind sidling up to me?’ By which he meant, of course, ‘do you mind not sidling up to me,’ but the decision was made on the spot to misconstrue it, and once that happens there is no way back.

Maybe Smythe could have redeemed his own situation with some wise choices rather than the very unwise choices he actually made. He tried to appear cool and the possessor of many cool toys; nothing too flashy – say, a novelty keyring or a rubber stamp that did pictures of a pair of kissing lips. He would pull them out in conversation and play casually with them. Unfortunately it became fairly obvious that he was stealing them from town.

He was rusticated – suspended and sent home – once for this. After our second half term break he simply didn’t come back.

I can forgive Sherborne most things; most of my criticisms of my time there were my own fault, or an institutional failing that you just learnt to live with, or simply the behind-the-times inertia of a tradition-ridden establishment. But just as I think I’m approaching a 100% reconciliation, I remember Smythe, who should have been spotted and saved by the establishment, and wasn’t. And I wonder how many other Smythes there were. Or are. One in every year? At least? Quite possibly.

Ultimately, the ethos of Sherborne was that you sank or swam. I sank a short distance, then struggled to the surface. Smythe never came up.

* * *

I have also prepared notes on another subject I can’t quite forgive Sherborne for. I may post them later.


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.”