Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chapter III King of Grange Road 1965/1966

As the reader may be aware I skipped over the 
years to be covered in this chapter in order to concentrate on the later

Westminster years covered in chapters 4 and 5. Now I have had a request to
go back and explain just how I managed to arrive at Westminster School. So
I will now basically rewind a bit and still avoiding the years 1963-4,
recount the end of my time at King's College School, Cambridge.

King of Grange Road 

After returning to King's in class 1B, I was gratified that I had not been assigned to the new "C"
stream class then being formed. What was very significant of the class's
new make-up was the presence of some boys from the previous year's "A"
stream. This fact alone was to give me a measure of confidence that the
teachers did not always get it right when picking talent.
Nor did I seem to mind not being made a prefect; I think my contemporaries who did
achieve that honor soon realised that they were not going to discipline me
without major fisticuffs. MacKenzie, Rozier and the rest could be big men
to the younger boys. I was off limits.

More important to me was being made scrum leader on the rugby team replacing the ineffective
Jonathan Willcocks, son of conductor David Willcocks. Chris Thompson would
demote me at some point but I remained the inspirational leader from my
second row position in the scrum.

Now that I was indeed in my final year at King's, thought had to be given as to where I might next
progress. My brother Gordon had passed the Common Entrance examination and
had, at the ripe old age of 14 years and 2 months, been admitted as a new
boy to Shrewsbury. Randy was now living at home in London and attending a
local grammar school. Myles, whose idea it was for me to go to King's, had
been head boy at Bryanston, an above average public school in Dorset. He
arranged for me to be interviewed by its headmaster on the head's rounds
of prep schools. Word soon came that I or David Briggs in his disclosure
had not created a sufficiently worthy impression on the Bryanston man. I
told my mother not to worry that I would pick the school that I'd be
interested in attending.

In actuality, I already had made up my mind.

The previous July as a dozen of the high flying senior boys at King's had
scooped up scholarships, exhibitions and bursaries to the best public
schools in England, I had been dumbfounded to discover that head boy,
Charlie Forman, captain of the rugby team, one of the brightest of the
bright, had not won an award of any sort to his next school, Westminster.
To be sure, he'd been admitted but we were obsessed with the number of
scholarships won from King's just as the better public schools in that era
rated themselves by how many open Oxbridge awards were gained by their
senior pupils.
Before Charlie's failure, I was not aware of Westminster. The elite schools most spoken
of were Winchester and Eton.  Few boys from King's had gone there, mainly because Westminster did not
offer music scholarships and insisted in that era upon setting its own
examinations, one for boys aspiring to a scholarship but a rigorous one,
as well, for ordinary entrance.  Charlie was probably a lamb led to
slaughter. Normally the only boys being taught the syllabus required for
the Westminster entrance exam were those in the "A" stream. To be prepared
for The Challenge, which Charlie sat, effectively required a higher stream
than King's could offer. In this regard, King's simply was neither up to
the academic standard of such schools as Hampstead's The Hall or Oxford's
The Dragon School, both schools consistently garnering a majority of
Queen's scholarships. 

It was therefore an occasion for sniggering
when I announced to all and sundry that I had decided on Westminster.
Fortunately, my mother knew that impossible things can happen and was not
about to shoot down my wishful thinking. But oh how they tried at King's :
Briggs was virtually apoplectic at the notion of my sitting the
Westminster exam. Previously, I had stood up to the weak, unimaginative
man, now it was my mother's turn. I think she and Myles pulled academic
rank on Briggs (he had attended King's College as a choral scholar and
would have been in awe of Myles' academic credentials) and basically told
him he would never hear the last of it (from the Fellows of King's College
of which he was one ex officio) if he stood in my way. I can just
imagine Briggs' parting shot to my mother, "Well, let it be on your head,

More ominous news was in the offing. We had gone to
Westminster for a preliminary interview in the autumn of 1965. The
registrar, John (Jumbo) Wilson, had been most civil and not even tried to
gauge my academic chances of success. His position was clear : for entry
in the usual entry term of Play 1966 (September), admission would be out
of the question. The school was vastly over-subscribed and there would
assuredly be boys who passed the entrance examination who would have to
wait until the following January for admission and others who would be
turned away. The only possibility would be your son's sitting the entrance
examination in February for admission in April for Election term 1966.
The truth of the matter was that I was almost 2 years away - going
at the King's academic pace - from being ready to sit the Westminster
exam. Reality was that I had to be ready in 3 months' time. There would be
four papers to be sat in one day: Latin, French, Mathematics and a General
paper. The general paper could look after itself as I was strong in
History and Geography and my English seemed adequate. My mother provided
tutors for me in the other subjects; they must have been task masters but
I don't remember improving; it seemed that there was so much ground to
cover, I had no time to master anything. For the upcoming Christmas
holidays, for once I would not travel but study. Arrangements had been
made with Mr. Briggs' bachelor brother, then living in the demimonde world
of London's Notting Hill Gate, for him to tutor me in Latin. Scarcely a
year earlier, I had been too petrified with fear to alight at the Notting
Hill Gate underground station, given the screaming headlines in the
nation's press over the debauched climate of the area.

I was up for the challenge, even if everyone apart from Mom feared the worst.
Nerves only set in the morning of Tuesday, February 8 as my mother
accompanied me in a taxi to Westminster. My mother thoughtfully had the
taxi stop on the way at a stationer's to make sure I was well armed for
the upcoming day-long ordeal. We were let off by the arch that
leads from Dean's Yard into Little Dean's Yard. I bid my mother goodbye
and proceeded to the far end of Little Dean's Yard where I mounted the
steps leading to the vast room, quaintly known as up School, the space
formerly a long Medieval room given over to the teaching of all of the
school's classes simultaneously until comparatively recent times. Having
taken a German bomb in 1940, it and College, the scholars' dormitory, had sacrificed themselves for the preservation of the Abbey, in a direct line mere yards away.

The room seemed full of boys waiting to
sit the examination. There were far more boys there that day than places
available. I concentrated fully on the exam papers; I discovered that I
just hadn't been taught a good part of the Mathematics syllabus and I
found that extremely frustrating as I was a quick learner in that subject.
During the General paper, boys were led one at a time to a nearby ornate
room where they sat down to be faced on three sides by a panel of senior
masters. My turn for the inquisition came and I quickly deduced that the
man facing me was the Headmaster. I quickly made eye contact with him and
maintained it whenever he spoke to me. I was asked questions from several
directions. To all of them, I replied truthfully and confidently. I had
sensed the importance of the occasion and wanted to come off as mature and
eager; to that end, I politely engaged the Headmaster by following up one
of his questions with one of my own along the same forgotten vein. Very
soon the interview was over and I was dismissed.

My feeling after the examination was that it had all been worthwhile; I must have failed
but at least I had given it a shot and I would be better off for the
experience having gained an academic edge for the upcoming Common Entrance
examinations in June for admission to some other public school. My mother
offered me the chance to stay on in London and enjoy myself; I told her I
wanted to return to King's for a school soccer match that
Wednesday. It seemed that half the boys in the school had the flu
that week so I was drafted into playing my first and only match for the
school football team as soon as I arrived back at school. I had no ability
to play soccer in those days but it was always a delight to try hard for
the sake of Chris Thompson, the soccer coach and my favorite teacher.
Playing was good therapy as I soon forgot about the Westminster business
and settled down to the King's routine again.

I was unsure of when I would hear the result of my application to Westminster. Certainly as I
sat on the floor at morning assembly the following Saturday I had no idea
what was in store for me.

After our usual service of worship, it
was customary for announcements to be made. David Briggs was finishing his
business and came to the last item. "I have received a letter, he
declared, "that Robert Fields has been admitted to Westminster School for
next term." Pandemonium broke out in the assembly hall. I immediately knew
something was queer : there was no mention of my having passed or won
anything, the usual terminology. But suddenly I was a real hero to the
other boys, especially my classmates dreading their own taking of exams
later that year. 

Mr. Briggs was to hand me the letter, a similar
one having been posted to my mother. The gist of it was that I had failed
by a considerable margin all of my papers except the General in which I
had scored 59%. In the oral examination (interview), I was judged much the
best of any of the candidates and the Headmaster had decided to take a
chance on me in the expectation that I would soon make the grade.
We were not to know whether Briggs' customary reference for me had
come into play; he must have been chagrined at our trumping him but
greatly relieved not to have to deal with either me or my mother come end
of the term. I had taken control of my fate. Now I would be the King of
Grange Road for the remainder of term, prefect or no prefect.

Updated February 1998

No comments:

Post a Comment