Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chapter V The School of Giants

I was involving myself in every conceivable activity at school by the time I entered the upper Shell in September 1967. Where I was shut out on account of age, politics, prejudice or because someone in power did not like me, I just went ahead and set up my own rival institution.

The school debating society was near-moribund so I went ahead and started the Junior Debating Society that was more lively and better attended than the senior one. Our first debate was centered on one of the hot topics of the day : the usefulness of sanctions against the white supremacist regime of South Africa. I founded and published a house magazine, Way In, that aspired to be a school rag. Following my taking tea with the remarkable Right Reverend Joost de Blank, Canon of Westminster, we received an inspiring article from him concerning his crossing the Limpopo River in southern Africa; another article I solicited was one by my contemporary Stephen Poliakoff on the emotive power of the motion picture "The Sound of Music". I had been denied a travel grant so I made sure I reported on my recently successful mission of studying Lapland. As a bonus, I hitch- hiked to Berlin and Paris on the way back, all on my own, at age 14. I wrote plays and produced a short one about euthanasia as part of a school play festival. I saw a need for someone to keep track of school sports results so volunteered my services as that person, a Honorary Secretary of a now recognized school function, complete with encrusted stationery and dedicated notice board in the midst of Little Dean's Yard. I shared collective leadership with Bruce Robinson of the Westminster Social Anarchists, an agit prop body that I made sure had its own large black and red banner (helped by another of Mother's lodgers) which was used on CND marches, at Anti Apartheid rallies and may have been part of the run-up to the infamous Grosvenor Square police riot (I had the sense to seek cover early on at a friend's flat, yards from the flying police helmets.)

Looking back, I wonder what my motivation could have been to have assumed so much responsiblity and additional work. Boarding at school allowed me the luxury of having several extra hours each day to keep up with schoolwork. But the schoolwork, despite a certain amount of coaching from other boys, was by its nature a solitary activity. By my second term at the school, I had formed friendships with talented boys and saw how gratifying it would be to collaborate with them on equal terms. This was in marked contrast to most of my classes where I had been grouped together with the school's lesser talents; unless a teacher could make me feel I was somehow collaborating with him in the pursuit of knowledge, I was something of a lost cause in class.

The previous September I had made sure I was sent up Fields (nearby Vincent Square) in Pimlico for Tuesday and Thursday sports activities. The alternative for the not so athletically inclined was the awkward train journey to suburban Grove Park. After being a rugger player at King's, I found I was at an exclusively soccer playing school. I soon found my niche as reserve goalkeeper in my age group. The first choice goalkeeper, Ben Rampton, to my chagrin, had a lock on the position and never missed a school match.

Aided by our lodger David Turner, a former Yorkshire schools' player, I soon developed adequate skills as a goalie. I was to find glory and much mental anguish as the suitably neurotic Liddell's goalkeeper, a queer situation as our house had a perfectly good one in the school's 1st. XI goalkeeper, Charlie Pike. Also available for the team were Head of House and Captain of the school's team, Julian Earle. Along with star colt, Adam Curtis, we had the makings of one of the top house teams, one to rival powerhouse Grant's.

The explanation of my elevation to usefulness : as Charlie wanted to play out and score goals from the center forward position, I was entrusted to keep goal. After a perfectly satisfactory first half of the season where even Charles Keeley was to note in his report that the house had discovered a new goalkeeper, I was devastated that the senior boys had passed me over for consideration for house Juniors' honors; in another house, my heroics, including saving a penalty kick, might have earned me the right to wear the house seniors' tie.

I should explain for the benefit of the reader not familiar with Westminster that the school did not actually have a school tie, as such. Boys wore charcoal gray suits with white or light blue shirts and either a plain blue or black necktie. Where boys stood out from one another was in the neckwear department. School monitors had their own distinctive tie, the various houses did as well for their monitors. For boys distinguishing themselves at sports, an award was made of "pinks", one of the entitlements was the wearing of a particular tie and so on down the ranks. House juniors' was not an especially coveted honor but its award to me would have had a profound effect on my morale.

So petulantly and with due explanation, I told the powers at be that I no longer felt inclined to get muddy and bruised for them, a position perfectly consistent with the prevailing Westminster apathy. The asinine Julian Earle gave me an ultimatum to play which I informed him was not in his power to give. The House had a perfectly good goalkeeper in Pike; if Pike were injured, I would naturally do my duty and come to the aid of my beloved house. Now if he needed me at right back, I'd be right over ...

This incident would form part of a common theme in my life: I would gladly sacrifice my time and energy for a voluntary project but if I felt that I was being taken advantage of, that was it, I would hang up my proverbial boots.

I am not sure if the row reached the Headmaster; it certainly caused screaming matches between the normally hard-to-hear Charles Keeley and myself. John Carleton was not much into outdoor sports, as I recall. Keeley was a regular spectator at school soccer matches, sharing the drama of a match with him, always an opportunity for fence-mending.

Obviously I was none too popular with the senior boys in command of the house. Nor with the next generation, either. N.H. Adam Curtis was not necessarily the brightest academic prospect in the school but he had oodles of self confidence, most of it stemming from his success on the playing fields (football and cricket). When I had broached the idea of "Way In" I had been given Curtis to probably fulfill the role of minder, to make sure I did not go overboard in editorial content. I was content to share the workload, though the only half of the work Adam contributed a little to was on the editorial front. Being the ultimate can do person, I managed to organize a typing pool (mainly my ever supporting Mother and her amazing typing skills), a Gestetner duplicating crew (one of our attractive lodgers) and the necessary materials for publishing an edition of some 500 or so copies.

Needless to say, Curtis and I soon fell out (due to his puffed up ego) or I should say we fell on top of one another in the house TV room and started brawling, he 2 years my senior. He had everything to lose and he did; I was already known as an aggressive big-mouth unafraid of my seniors and I cemented that reputation squarely among my few admiring contemporaries.

Things reached a stage where I just didn't want to continue at Liddell's any longer. I had a certain admiration for the Geography master, Mr. Ross, also the head of the day boy house Wren's where I had many friends. I approached him at Christmas with a request to change house. Mr. Ross patiently explained to me that migration would be ill-advised and that I should just assume a low profile for the duration.

I must have come to my senses over the holidays. It was certainly a wonderful trip for me : I flew out to Gibraltar on BEA and walked across the frontier into Andalusia, the first of many trips during my youth to Franco-era Spain. I now put into practice what I had so diligently learned at school. Somehow I managed not to lose my virginity to a bar girl in Torremolinos. She agreed to meet me for a date in the day-time and in failing to recognize her in her civilian clothes, I caused offense and lost my chance at relieving ever increasing pressure in my loins.

By the end of 3 weeks hitch-hiking around the region, sometimes hitching a ride on back of a burro, I was now fluent in Spanish. There was just one difficulty as I discovered upon my return to Westminster and in greeting Dave Brown with my new found linguistic confidence: I had mastered the regional dialect of Andalusian, the fore-father of Latin American Spanish, but somewhat removed from proper Castillian. Mr. Brown informed me that I was to stop speaking that idiom forthwith and certainly not in class as I would be headed for examination fiasco and taking everyone with me. On subsequent trips to Spain I made sure I spent most of my time in Madrid.

Lent Term at Westminster turned out to be the lull before the storm. To be sure, my hormones were now in full force now that I had turned 15; but a truce had been declared between me and the opposing forces and I was glad to fully concentrate on my studies. I had been promoted to a higher stream in mathematics, to a class taught by the wonderful Hubie Ward. Though it was not the highest stream, the curriculum was Pure Mathematics, it being assumed that we could pass the standard Elementary Mathematics examination with ease. It was an exhilarating experience in learning, more resembling a logic class. The dynamics were helped by the unlikely (considering what a dolt I had been considered a year before) presence of two Queen's Scholars, no matter a year younger than the rest of us. Mr. Ward's class was on par with any seminar that I was to have at University, years later.

Latin had turned into a disaster. Our class, one of the lower streams, had been seconded a temporary teacher who very quickly had the most unruly class in Britain on his hands. French was taught with the proverbial iron rod by the remarkable Christopher "Foxy" Martin, a man who overcame great personal tragedy and devoted his life to seeing his boys succeed.

A dashing figure, I could not wait for Martin to inherit and inspire me the following year as part of the Colts, the under 16 football team that he coached. A French speaker himself, he set such exacting standards it remained a challenge to keep au courant in class. Part of our weekly prep involved a blind translation without the aid of a dictionary. Early on, I needed to break the honor code to maintain my marks within acceptable limits. By Election (summer) Term and the GCE "O" level examination looming, I knew I had to start playing by the rules to have a fair chance of mastering such translation work. Naturally, my marks dropped which Foxy erroneously put down to reduced effort on my part. I hope he was gratified that I did indeed pass the exam when the time came. Martin, is now Head of one of Britain's most prestigious schools, Millfield.

Though only consisting of 2 short 45 minute periods a week, History remained the highlight, the golden time of my time at Westminster. Instead of John Carleton and his 20 question quizzes, it was the man himself, Charles Keeley, teaching us in his own classroom, located near his study in Liddell's.

It was not just on account of my contrarian nature that I sought to impress inside the classroom he who was my mortal enemy outside. History was a favorite subject of mine since King's and Keeley was to quickly make every 14 year old boy, genius or not, aware of his woefully inadequate ability to consider history.

Keeley spoke in hushed tones, even in class; every phrase measured, any statement weighed for balance, a reluctance to ever pass historical judgment. Yet Keeley was an adherent of one of the most theocratic, dogmatic institutions to grace God's earth, the Roman Catholic Church. My introduction to serious writing did not begin in some English class, it was with Charles, that I learned to write an essay, to be thoughtful and concise with words. He would patiently correct my prep, always making a necessary astute comment at the top of the paper for me to focus on, allowing me to improve on a week by week basis.

After my first magnus opus was rightly savaged by Keeley, I began weekly informal tutorials with one of his more senior pupils, fellow Liddellite, Guy Sainty. Guy would read an early draft and whenever he would chuckle at an idiocy, I would duly take note and, upon further investigation, exercise more care in my written statements.

Keeley soon realized that none of my hormonal animosity dared raised its head within the confines of his classroom. On the other hand he must have thought me barmy for my over the top efforts. I think he required a weekly essay of 500 words; I set 2000 words as the minimum for my weekly dissertations. Nonetheless, Mr. Keeley seemed genuinely pleased to see me there, By our third term together, I felt confident enough to submit a 5000 word entry in a school History essay contest; I labored much over the topic, "Thomas More, Saint or Sinner", before submitting a handsomely typed entry (thanks, Mom!) that was not entirely sympathetic to More, a politically inopportune position, considering the contemporary judgment of More's saintliness.

Of course, I neither won the prize nor received special mention. But Charles had read my essay, an effort not possible by me before that year, which was for me gratification enough.

I think it was during the Easter holidays that my mother dropped the bombshell : she could no longer afford to pay my Westminster School fees and so far my father had not indicated he would pick up the slack. Or maybe, it was the other way around.

At first, I did not see an insurmountable problem. Let me become a day boy, I pleaded with my mother. The fees were a fraction of the boarding ones and we lived closer than most to the school.

For some inexplicable reason, my mother was not able to grasp that idea, nor able to explain her logic at preferring me go to some other non-fee paying establishment and be a day boy there.

My mother duly gave notice to the school, freeing up a place for a lucky boy then sitting the entrance examination. When, a few weeks later, my mother heard word from her former sister-in- law, Lois Pantages, that my Aunt would gladly subscribe to the school fees and why hadn't anyone told her before, it was too late. My assigned bed had been re-allocated and would we mind if I became a day-boy for a term. Yes, my mother would! My mother had turned 50 and was ingesting a plethora of pills for her age-related ailments. A smart pill was not among them.

I was not to be immune from such illogic, either, when fate bestowed upon me a similar opportunity for idiocy.

At Westminster, nobody ever spoke within my earshot of the pupils' families' comparative wealth. It was considered extremely bad form to ever make a fellow pupil feel less well off. Nobody would ever go to an expensive restaurant unless it were understood that it was a treat for all, owing to some magnificent largesse on the part of a doting relative. What was curious is that the school maintained its use of noble titles in the distributed pink list of all pupils attending the school. Hence, we discovered that some of our classmates were Viscounts, Honorables and the like. Though I was star struck by academic prowess I was not impressed by either nobility or royalty.

Shortly before arriving at Westminster, one of the most sensational society scandals of the era broke forth : the Queen's first cousin, George, Earl of Harewood, favorite grand-son of Queen Mary, son of the Princess Royal had left his wife the Countess, the former Marion Stein, for a younger woman, another musician, the Australian Patricia Tuckwell. And furthermore, Miss Tuckwell had given birth to Lord Harewood's fourth son. Would the Queen kindly grant her cousin permission to divorce Lady Hareword?

So began the exit of Lord Harewood from the Royal Family, its most intellectually gifted member.

But as this whole sorry mess was being played out in the British press, Lord Harewood had his eldest son, David, Viscount Lascelles already at Westminster with the next two, James and Jeremy on their way from The Hall school, classmates of the Campbell brothers.

Perhaps, as a reaction to all the publicity, at first I gave my contemporary Jamie a wide berth at school. But we soon became acquainted and even for a time fairly good friends. The Lascelles were all football mad and quite talented footballers. Their father was in equal parts football and opera mad. He came to head Covent Garden but was already chairman of then hot Leeds United F.C. and president of the Football Association. Of the three boys, the youngest Jeremy was apt to play the ball the least in a match, yet he was the one whose ability might have propelled to him to a career as a professional player in a less class driven, less structured society. He was also endowed with unseemly good looks and mental faculties. Both he and Jamie were focused on music; Jamie as a musician, Jeremy as a walking encyclopedia of pop music. Jeremy was to give the best years of his professional life as an A & R man to Richard Branson and be one of the many, like my brother Randolph, who believed themselves betrayed by the svengali.

I was horrified then that the first contact of any sort I ever had with Jamie was his asking to buy pot off me. If Jamie thought I was dealing drugs, then that must be my reputation throughout the lower school. Nothing could have been further from the truth. There were boys who would slink off for an illicit cigarette and even those frequenting the local pubs. I was not among them. I was always in such trouble, I didn't need to provide an easy "bust" for my enemies. And drugs? I already knew they were mind enhancing but mind impairing. I fervently believed in people's right to ingest drugs but not in a school or work setting.

I had probably brought the matter down on myself for insisting on distributing the underground newspaper International Times (IT) within the school. I know Charles was horrified at its boundary stretching definitions of free speech with articles on growing cannabis, abortion and radical politics. Randy had introduced me to the newspaper's offices in Southampton Row and in the spring of 1968, many of the boys at the school were hungry for such counter cultural information.

I promptly requested an audience with the Headmaster to express my concerns about an incipient culture of drug using at the school. Without naming names, I explained that I had been approached by boys interested in purchasing drugs. If unable to purchase from me, the boys would assuredly find an eager source elsewhere. It was my opinion that the school should tackle the issue head-on and provide guidelines rather than ignore the issue. Carleton was incredulous, not willing to grasp that 14 year olds would soon be stumbling into class, high as a kite.

It was his knee-jerk reaction to a similar behavior that caused a general revolt.

That year, the year in which we turned 15, was the first year that most of us began attending parties most Saturday nights; probably the defining feature of a Westminster education was the ability to leave the cloisters and re-join the normal world on a weekly basis; for Peter Ustinov, it was his insistence of leaving the school's confines as many evenings as possible to skip along to the nearby West End theatres.

At these parties where fighting almost never took place but heavy petting and sometimes copulation did, it was seen as quite normal for wine to be provided. A couple of the boys outside of my own social circle had extended their drinking to Sundays and the lingering effects had been present on a few Mondays as they rolled back into school. Their behavior had somehow instigated a crisis council among the school's housemasters. Perhaps, J.C. had been bamboozled into it, but there it was, a letter sent to all the parents above his signature asking them to supervise their sons more carefully on the weekends. The boys took the letter as a deep insult. Why paint the whole school by the behavior of a couple of miscreants. Wasn't this an attempt to encroach on the boys' ancient privileges? I saw the matter quite differently : this would have been a perfect opportunity for the senior masters to have consulted with the boys at large and formulated a policy rather than issuing something that resembled a politely worded Diktat. As word spread that spring morning of the letter and with copies now circulating at school, small groups of boys began congregating in Little Dean's Yard to discuss the issues. In a fatal, comical, move word soon came that such assembly was no longer permitted; at the short mid morning break, less political boys showed their displeasure with the heavy handed tactics by joining us, the more radical, in discussion groups.

Then came lunch. As usual, my thoughts were with my stomach but as I was about to enter Liddell's for the one meal we took there, I was intercepted at the door by Charles who beckoned me sternly to accompany him. This time, we were not headed upstairs to his study, but through the arch leading into Dean's Yard and along the pavement to Number 17, the Headmaster's House. I was led upstairs where a very somber John Carleton awaited me.

We were left alone. His consternation soon turned to spoken bemusement. How could I challenge his authority over the school? I explained that such was not my intention. Could I take the time to explain the feelings of the boys, I requested. But he had spoken with his monitors. Sir, the monitors do not represent the views or the interests of the rest of the boys. Their concerns are extremely narrow, restricted for the most part to their successful Oxbridge entry.

We soon embarked on a very civil exchange of views, absolutely free of coercion on J.C.'s part or inhibition on my part. Half an hour, the length of school lunch had passed; it seemed as if we might defuse the whole situation, then the unimaginable happened. Coming at a distance, we began to hear commotion building outside the long Georgian windows of his study. We heard isolated shouts, then a chorus of untold number of boys chanting, "Free him, Free him". What on earth, was the reaction from the both of us. What had become a friendly chat now turned icy. I tried to help : Sir, I don't consider myself a prisoner here nor at any disadvantage. Let me go downstairs and explain to the others that we are having a dialogue. I am sure, they will then go away and go about their business. My recollection is that I did re-enter the school population at that moment. My memories are hazy from the moment of chanting onwards; the issue died very quickly, but not before I felt betrayed by my friend Simon Berrill who saw fit to sensationalize the issue by calling in a report to the ultra conservative Daily Mail, thereby calling my mentor's stewardship into question.

What is important to remember that we were all aware of the then on-going student riots in Paris. There was a certain hysteria among all students that spring of 1968 and a matching paranoia on the part of authority. At this point, only a few people realized that I was not returning to Westminster the following year on account of financial hardship. The GCE "O" Level examinations were looming and I settled down to revise and pass enough examinations to secure my passage to the Sixth Form, whether it be at Westminster or some other school.

Many people came to believe that I had been expelled from Westminster, even my brothers. This wounded me greatly, especially as I knew the Headmaster wanted me back. A few months later, I answered the telephone in our Hanover Gate Mansions flat and it was John Carleton himself on the other end. After a brief introduction, he got to the point : if I wished, I could rejoin the school in January as a boarder. Would I talk with my mother and let him know?

The answer would be negative. That summer, after the revolution, I had lost my virginity, entered a sixth form college and was 6 months away from sitting "A" level examinations that would enable me to leave school at 16. I thought the world was my oyster and now I was too far ahead in my grand plan to return to the stultifying atmosphere at Liddell's'. Instead, I would vicariously experience Westminster through many of my closest friends who hadn't even entered the school as of my leaving but who would go on to have brilliant careers there.

I was to meet John Carleton one more time. We met perchance in the Portobello Road market in late 1972, shortly after his retirement from the school. He recognized me immediately despite my wearing a beard, my now looking every inch the typical university student that I had become. He explained that he had moved to a house in the Labroke Grove area. "Do come to tea," were his parting words to me.

Not appreciating the advancing sands of time, I never got around to enjoying Coot's company again. In late 1974, he died of cancer. I read of his death in The Times; ashen faced, I went into the pub opposite my university hall of residence in Mayfair and got pie-faced drunk. Some hours later, finding me sitting on the outside steps, bawling, a fellow student took me into her room and reminded me of the re-birth that comes with death. I wrote a poem to commemorate the love between teacher and student, ignored at Westminster but which was well received in literary circles.

For decades to come, I would have nightmares trying to resolve my unfinished Westminster education. Not only did I forever want to see how that time-line would have played out, I suspect that Coot, too, wanted to see what would have become of Westminster with me on board.

I had become, at 15, a leader at the school of giants.

Work in progress 

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