4. Monkton Combe School 1950-54
It is hard to say which part of one's young life, outside the home, was most influential. Was it primary school, where the building blocks were laid? Or secondary, where one's individual course begins to be set? Or college, where one chooses one's influences and directions deliberately, and the friends one makes are also more deliberately chosen?
Monkton Combe was certainly a great influence on me. I have not returned to visit it more than a handful of times. It is a different place. But when I have been back, old scenes have returned to my mind strongly.
This chapter will be a ragbag of different memories, so first, the general shape. What were the main features of my life there?
The first terms were blighted by teasing, what would now be classed bullying. The reason was the Director of Music, Anthony Smith-Masters, who very unwisely gathered a group of musical juniors around him (I was a music scholar), invited them to tea in the Music Room (then just a single small room), and generally made them his little coterie. I was one of them, though I eased out after a bit. We were named "The Satellites", and boys called '"Sati" after us. It doesn't sound much, but it hurt.
In the next year things got better. I worked hard in the fifth form, and would have taken the new exam, O level, but was 'age-barred'. No one was allowed to take the exam before their 16th birthday, and a group of us were 15. So we went straight into the Sixth Form and began A levels, at the same time as keeping up Maths and English (and an new exam in History of Science) to take along with - yes, along with - our A levels, which we were trying to take in one year.
The result was failure. I well remember getting the postcard for a level results. We were on holiday in Newton Purcell, and the card read: Latin: O level only. Greek: O level only; Ancient History: O level only. I got English and Maths, but failed the History of Science - a very interesting course, nevertheless.
By that time I had carved out a niche for myself as a pianist, and boys respected me for that, even if my sports achievements were small. I played for the 3rd XV in Rugby, occasionally for the 2nds; I was top scorer for School House cricket XI in one house match. I was never any good at hockey.
My Upper Sixth year was very pleasant. We re-took A levels, and this time I passed them, and was preparing for Cambridge entrance. I stayed on for the Christmas term, went up to take the exams, as I tell in the next chapter, returned for the Rag Concert at school, and then left.
Music looms very large. After a while I changed from piano lessons to organ lessons. I would have had both, but feared that the expense would be too much for my parents. The next Director of Music, Sandy Youngman, told me he could have taught me more on the piano. But I remember learning piano pieces with him: A D major Haydn Sonata, John Ireland:The Towing Path; Schubert Impromptus; the Moonlight Sonata.
I suppose I was fascinated by the power of the organ. The chapel had a small pipe organ in a chamber up to one side. It was distinguished by including a Harmonic Trumpet among its small selection of stops on two manuals. I used to go up and try to play Bach's Toccata in D minor - not the fugue, which was far too hard. The secret was that the organ had sub-octave couplers, and unusual thing. That meant that I could pull out this coupler and play the fast octaves as single notes, and they sounded right. Great satisfaction. But when my friend Christopher Candy, who was later killed as a young man in an air accident, brought one of the msic teachers to hear me 'play the toccata perfectly' I was too ashamed to use the coupler in his presence, and tried to use both hands. Disaster.
The first composition I ever remember writing down was for that organ. I called it a sonata, though it was just an eight-bar tune. The teacher had heard it and suggested I write it down. I did, just as I played it, and he was disappointed, saying he thought I would have made something more of it.
From about that time I used to scribble music, mostly ruling my own clefs in exercise books. The climax of my composing career was when the school orchestra played through the 90 bars I had completed of a projected symphony.
The chapel changed the little organ at the side for a much bigger one at the back, with console near the front. I spent many many happy hours playing that. Christopher Candy and I sometimes used to race each other from the dining hall to get seated first. It was there that I took my one and only Associated Board exam, grade VIII, and got a distinction. In the school notices this was eclipsed by Malcom Drummond's distinction at Grade VII, when he got the top mark for that grade in piano in the country! I played a Stanford piece, one of the Six Short Preludes in E flat, Bach, but I don't remember what, and a Brahms chorale prelude. Probably less demanding than today's syllabus. I remember learning two Rheinberger sonatas, including the hard but gorgeous D flat no 12, and the Pastoral in G, no 3, which I have put on YouTube played in Street. Youngman told me that the last movement of no 3 was a set piece that year for ARCO. I learned some of the great Bach works. He was the tops in my estimation. The first trio sonata was a technical challenge. The Great G minor fantasia was more showy for less challenge. The F minor prelude and fugue was the first work where I realised how much learning there still was to do after you could play all the notes.
I played timpani or percussion in the school orchestra, which was a ragged affair. Malcolm Drummond was a better pianist than I, and became a professional musician. He was allowed to play Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto, and later the first movement of the Schumann; but once he and I were given the Mozart 2-piano concerto and performed it at the school concert. That was probably in the Upper Sixth, and I enjoyed the experience hugely. I wrote the cadenza for us to play in the last movement. Malcom was a violinist also; I took a few violin lessons from Alois Sigl, a visiting teacher who then led the Bath Orchestra, but I was too old to make anything of it.
Characters on the staff included my housemaster A.F.Lace, who wrote the history of the school, A goodly Heritage, and also his autobiography, My Own Trumpet. He was a veteran of the Great War, and told us of crossing the fields of poppies growing in Flanders. I always found him frightening, even when he made me head of School House in my last year. He was also head of the CCF. I tried my best to do all the CCF activities, but didn't enjoy them much, never earned a stripe, and Lace wrote in one report that I was 'not the military type.' I now take that as a compliment. He mentioned me rather slightingly in his life story as one who spent National Service learning a language - rather than defending the boundaries of empire, I suppose. Lace taught History in my time, though he had taught Latin earlier. His teaching methods were idiosyncratic. Tests used to begin with the first question asked as he was still outside the classroom door. He had a limitless stock of ex-army buff paper, which he issued at the start of each class for our answers, as well as using for sending administrative notes around the house at breakfast and for CCF business. 'See me after b'fast' was a standard. In History lessons one could gain points by answering questions. My best achievement was when he asked for the Latin for 'tit for tat' and he gave me 3 points, 'One for quid, one for pro, and one for quo.'
My first cousin Peter Parsons had been to Monkton 6 years before me, in Farm House, with Dick Hole as housemaster, and we had asked that I should be there too, but no. Dick Hole acted as my tutor, but being in a different house didn't see me much. He was kind and concerned when I was obviously going through a time of depression. I think that apart from the immediate worries of school life Mum was poorly at the time. I believe that some people thought Dick Hole was badly treated by the school, but I never heard details. He never taught me. I think his subject was English.
One housemaster I never had teach me was the Geography master Mr Sirr. He had a fearsome reputation, so I was glad that I could drop Geography at once in favour of Greek, which I first learned in a little group with the headmaster Derek Wigram. Derek was a thinking man, not a dominating type. The school went through a very difficult time financially while I was there, and Derek got the staff to take salary cuts to help it survive. He was the one who had us all in small groups into his office and gave us our sex talk. I can't remember what he said, except that sex was meant to express love and creativeness, and a few practical physical details.
The chaplain was a rugby type. 'Go low,' he used to shout when people were going to tackle. He prepared me for Confirmation. I kept his cyclostyled notes for ages. He was a friend of Peter Carpenter's family, a clergy family, and I remember going to a party at Peter's house in the holidays and the chaplain asking me how I liked the girls. When I muttered 'All right' or something, he said 'They are the finest in ...' wherever we were, and was disappointed that I didn't take my opportunites.
Girls at Monkton were nowhere to be seen. Once I was surprised to find that a boy in the little house where I had my shared study, Woodbine Cottage, had a girl in the kitchen. When they thought someone was coming she nipped out of the kitchen window. That was the sum total of girls in school. Once a year the choral society held a joint concert with Westonbirt School, but the girls in their cloaks didn't fraternise much. Boarding schools are much better at giving young people a bit of natural interaction these days, though the girls at Sunny Hill still behaved in a very embarrassing way over boys when I used to lead Classics trips abroad.
Back to staff. They were Christians, and took their turn at speaking in chapel. The one who didn't speak in chapel was Mr 'Blad' Brown, the Biology teacher. His was my very worst subject. I am good at learning what makes logic to me, including maths, but Biology seemed too free and random for me to grasp. I got something like 18% in one exam. We were once sent into Governor's Field - beside the main school gate, now built over - to measure out a square metre of grass and list what we found there. That was interesting.
Our Classics teachers were Michael Edwards and 'Aggie' Whitehouse. I went and visited each of them in their retirement in Combe Down, and they both remembered me. Michael, the head of department, was lively, Whitehouse quieter. In our sixth form years we read an incredible amount of Latin and Greek literature, Greek plays including Persae, Antigone, Rhesus, Oedipus Tyrannus, poetry by Theocritus, and I can't remember what not. Compared with today's A level students we were vastly advanced. We learned to enjoy writing Latin and Greek prose in the styles of various authors - Tacitus was one of my favourite people to imitate. We also wrote Latin and Greek verse, which took ages to do. But it all stood me in very good stead at Cambridge. Michael Edwards kept a Golden Book, into which he allowed boys to copy the very best quality work. I was allowed to make two or three entries, which was to me a very big privilege.
The physical regime at Monkton was quite Spartan. In School House we had to have a cold bath every morning. It was a very quick affair, a few seconds submerged. In the summer we could go swimming in the open air pool instead, which I liked to do, and became quite a good swimmer. The chlorine did make my eyes tired for the rest of the day, though. I got my life saving Bronze Medallion, which meant that people could swim when I was there. Most weekdays there were games after lunch (winter) or after afternoon school (summer). That was Monday, Tuesday, Friday. CCF was on Tuesday afternoons, and last period Friday morning, and Thursdays and Saturdays were for matches against other schools. If your weren't playing you had to go and watch. As I said, I played rugby for the school, and enjoyed going to away matches and seeing other schools and judging their teas. I never got beyond house team in cricket, and so enjoyed sitting on the boundary line writing poetry while the game went its pleasant way. Several of my verses were published in The Monktonian, and one made its way into a special anthology published after I left. I'll see if I can remember it:
To crown green blades above the sod
The scientist, seeing it, praised its growth.
A perfect little flower grew,
Perfect in form and colour both.
The painter, seeing it, praised its hue.
King David, seeing it, praised his God.
Many of my verses were inspired by the beauty of Monkton Combe valley. There was one about the might sky that John Betjamen commended as 'quite a good poem' when he came to lecture. One about the snow began,
The chilly wizard, with ephemeral delicacy
An English teacher at Sunnyhill liked the phrase 'charged with alchemy.'
Has laid his finger charged with alchemy
Upon the normal, and there springs to life
An area of unreal, unnatural beauty.
One verse was a response to a verse by the Monktonian editor John Holt, who shared the same study as I, with a third chap called Bevington. His was called 'The Song of the Modernist' and began
Tradition is the curse of public schools.
I dashed off a reply when I got home at Christmas:
It halts the onward march of change's tread.
Tradition, you so boastfully assert
I can't remember just how it went on, but it did and does express part of my feelings about tradition and change. We have lost a great deal since the 1950s in social cohesion and decency of daily life, while of course making great gains in technology, general comfort, and understanding of people. I don't consider the end of 'deference', that the BBC thinks is as unmixed good, to be good for politics. How would Churchill have done if he had had to appear before John Humphries regularly during the war?
Is just a shackle on the foot of change.
But you, who rub its honour in the dirt,
Would you improve the things you re-arrange?
In the Church, too, I have one foot in the traditionalist camp. In these last days I have to acknowledge that the Book of Common Prayer feeds my soul in a way that family services don't. Imaginative, well thought out worship is always a great help, particularly when the words are poetic as well as sincere, and the music, however simple, is not trite. I have written my share of children's songs - I was the largest contributer to one book of songs published by the Scripture Union - but they were really more teaching songs, not so much for worship. My most successful praise ditty was, I think, a verse for Palm Sunday and one for Easter Day:
Praise King Jesus riding into town,
One reviewer picked out of all the book the words Riding on a donkey. Throw your jackets down. He said they stood out among the conventional. He also commended the tune I chose to go with the words:
Riding on a donkey. Throw your jackets down.
Sing Hosanna, wave your branches.
Praise King Jesus riding into town.
Praise King Jesus. He's alive today.
He's alive for ever. Sing aloud hurray.
Praise King Jesus. He's alive today.
The soldiers sat and watched.
He said the old hymn tune showed up all the new music.
They saw the crosses three.
They did not know the Son of God
Was dying there for me.
I wrote choruses while vicar of St John's, Woodbridge. We used to get the Scripture Union Sunday School materials, including some music. When I wrote offering to check their music for accuracy they asked me to write for them as well, so I did that for a year or so, until the editor changed. They paid me £5 for the copyright of each chorus I wrote. The Palm Sunday song came from the incidental music I wrote for a dramatisation, which included trotting music. While on that tack, I wrote to the editor of CSSM Choruses book 3 pointing out about 100 misprints. The first two books had been my childhood companions, and I played through them on the piano over and over, as well as singing the choruses on Irish beaches and English church halls and at home on Sunday evenings, so I was disappointed that Book 3 was a shoddy affair by comparison.
How did I get so far from the physical regime at Monkton - oh, cricket and poetry.
When it was too wet for games we were sent on a run. Because this happened in wet weather, it was often muddy, slippery and cold, and I didn't enjoy it. Mercifully it was shorter than a game of hockey or rugby, and you felt good afterwards.
Once a year there was a house cross-country run, ending with a splash across the stream to the finishing line on the cricket field, Longmead. I am ashamed to say I took the 'voluntary' label seriously and never entered. I should have. The summer sports day was for everyone to take part in. Those who didn't represent their houses in any other event had to take part in a relay race organised by Lace, which he called the Caucus Race. Everyone regarded taking part in that as a bit of a disgrace, so I took up putting the shot, and did it for my house.
For those who didn't join CCF the headmaster had something he called Pioneers. Boys were given community service (within the school) during CCF times. If there were no specific tasks to do, boys were sent to dig and level another playing field. It took all the time I was at the school to make very little difference, and then they got earth-oiving machinery and it was done in a trice. Our director of music was sorry this was called Pioneers, because our hymn book contained a good tune of that name, which he felt he could never use!
Sunday afternoons every boy had to be off school premises for an hour. We had some pleasant walks in the beautiful local countryside. It was too far to walk into Bath and back, but Combe Down was a destination, and the village at the top of the hill opposite the school, Conkwell. Some boys led a Sunday School there, and there was one in Monkton Combe village as well. I was roped into a Bible Class in the pre-prep section of Monkton, Glenburnie, up on Combe Down, by Margaret Birch. She had me play the piano, and asked me to give my first ever Christian talk. I talked about Christians being compared with contrasting creatures, sheep and soldiers. I'm sure it was a very bad talk, but it was a start.
Margaret is a family friend from Blackheath days. She took me once to a recital in Bath by Yehudi Menhuin. Official school outings to concerts included my first Gilbert and Sullivan in the Theatre Royal - it was Mikado, and my first opera, Vaughan Williams' Hugh the Drover. We heard Bach's Magnificat in Bath Abbey, and, the emotional tops, Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony in The Pavilion. These all made a deep impression. All hearing great music for the first time, and all live. Recorded music played a small part.
On Saturday evenings we had either a speaker (like John Betjamen) or a concert, both compulsary and held in the dining hall, or a film, voluntary but packed, shown in the gym. Films included Hamlet with Olivier, The Pickwck Papers, and the Marx Brothers. Once I told Sandy Youngman I was thinking of missing the Marx Brother in favour of listening to a first performance of some music on the radio. He advised the film. Sandy Youngman sometimes had college friends down to perform, and accompanied them. That was how I first heard Cesar Franck's violin sonata. Youngman played some of us his part of the last movement, and I commented that there seemed no need of a violin. He said 'Wait and see," and when I heard the violin play the same melody in canon with the piano it was a glorious revelation.
We went to chapel twice a day. Morning prayers were at 8.35 I think, after breakfast and a half hour break to prepare for the day. Evening prayers were at 9 p.m. and juniors went to bed first - early bedders. There was always a hymn, from a rather good hymn book called the Public School Hymn Book. That gave me a good grounding in the best congregational music from Bach on. I was in the chapel choir from the start, and graduated from Soprano to Alto to Bass, learning to sing the parts as I went down. We performed anthems like Charles Wood's O thou the central orb - glorious, and Holst's Turn back o man. We once sang Bach's Jesu joy and treasure, which is superb and quite long and demanding. Also the advent motet Wachet auf. Once a year we joined other schools in a cathedral for the Public Schools Choirs Festival. I remember the wonder of being in Gloucester Cathedral and singing in that acoustic with the thick pillars - a glimpse of heaven.
The choir led a Nine Lessons and Carols, One master kindly commented that you wouldn't get better singing outside King's College Cambridge. Not true, but we took it very seriously and got great satisfaction. There was a choir tea beforehand, when everyone was keyed up and happy. We once sang evensong for the BBC.
The school choral society sang Elgar's King Olaf, Purcells' King Arthur, Stanford's Songs of the Sea, Haydn's Creation, and I can't remember what else. Great experiences, all. The school orchestra, with the head on French Horn and me on triangle, graduating to timps, played very badly, but played. I've mentioned the concertos already. I loved the overture to Iolanthe, for all the lovely tunes but chiefly for the triangle part. We played Beethoven's 7th, slow movement only, the one that has converted many listeners to classical music for the first time. Also Haydn's Oxford Symphony, a concertino for a promising younger pianist, Strauss Blue Danube waltz, Mozart Eine kleine Nachtmusik - I was playing second violin in that.
Wednesday evening was Christian Union, when the small hall near the dining room was crowded. We sang and heard a talk. I got to know more devotional hymns there, like Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand, with its picture of the cross 'two arms outstretched to save' from the eternal grave. There was also a Sunday night meeting. When I and friends started the Informal Concerts on Sunday nights, we were setting up in opposition. There you are, two great loves of my life in competition, my faith and music. Thank God they are so easy to combine.
Once a year the Old Boys visited for OM Day. I resented their coming, and vowed I would never do it myself. I never have. I've been to the school, which is only an hour's drive away from Street, a few times to show family and friends, and once to prowl around by myself, but mostly it is a memory only. One exception was when Sandy Youngman came back to give a piano recital, when he played pieces he had taught me, and so many memories were stirred. I am glad I had the courage to tell him then, in front of other well-wishers of his, what a great and fine influence he had been on me.