The Old Boys reunion
Posted by Simon Parke, 18 June 2018, 12.00pm
They gather sixty years on.
It was the brain child of an ex-headmaster who realised that it was sixty years since left his prep school in the south of England.
Why not find out what happened to everyone, and organise a meeting back at the school?
So here they are, all now in their seventies, returning the place which held their lives from the age of seven to thirteen, in the early 1950’s.
Two of their number have died; three are not well enough to travel. But fourteen are here - one travelling from India, another from Canada, another from Valencia.
And over lunch, they share stories of their school days; a little different from current educational practice.
The head master, Mr Sykes, had not been interested in lessons.
He preferred his pupils to be involved in the more practical affairs of community living, so they had to build their own class rooms, (with the help of the maintenance man, Perry) while unattended 12-year-olds looked after the erratic boiler and took the consequences when it exploded.
‘I learned early the lacerating effects of steam on the body,’ one of them tells us. ‘I was in the sick room for days.’
Boys were also required to mow the grass, and so they would be driving tractors – again, unattended - pulling heavy-duty (and very sharp) cutters behind them.
And they would also assist the headmaster in his pursuit of moles.
‘He’d drive his car on to the grass, attach a pipe to the exhaust, and then he’d tell us to push the other end down the mole hole. When he had the car running, he’d signal to us to switch on the gas – and he’d stand by with his gun to shoot moles as they surfaced, trying to escape…like people escaping a burning building. I have to confess - and I’ve never told anyone this before - we didn’t always turn the gas on. It just seemed unfair.’
Mr Sykes did not like moles. This was the reason he always took a shot gun into the classroom.
‘He always had a shot gun in class.’ Everyone is nodding their head at the remembrance. ‘And if he saw a mole, he’d suddenly stop talking about Latin grammar, pick up the gun, stride over to the window and shoot it. He’d then return to teaching.’
Another then stands up and we discover his nickname was ‘Titch’ at school.
‘You were definitely ‘Titch’!’
He doesn’t look pleased at the remembrance, but he tells us how glad he is to be here.
‘I am glad to be here. I believe in this! I am a believer - in more ways than one!’
Much fervour is suddenly on display, which now spills a little.
‘How good to meet together today! But we will not meet again in this life,’ he says. ‘So our next meeting will be in heaven, and that will be even better! But we will only meet there if we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the choice before us today. Shall we meet again in heaven? Shall we make that decision? Because the alternative…’
As we finish our cheese cake, and sip on our wine, he hangs the image of hell before us - which comes as a bit of a surprise amid the amusing and remarkable school reminiscences.
But away from hell, and a heavenly reunion with Titch, all remember Mr Baldry.
‘Amazing piano player, who used to accompany the silent movies, shown on Saturday nights. He could do every mood. Brilliant.’
Mr Baldry was also a Wagner-loving Nazi, very keen on his black shirt and arrested by the authorities at the outbreak of war for his political sympathies. But he existed happily enough at the school, brilliantly accompanying silent movies and writing the annual pantomime, which always included unfortunate songs about ‘wogs’.
When parents complained to the head master - for Mr Baldry offended even 1950’s sensibilities - he’d always exonerate himself by saying:
‘I didn’t know that was coming. I’m afraid I never see the pantomime before it is performed.’
The boys remembered staff mainly for the strength of their wrists.
‘You knew the ones who could hurt you with a cane.’
And talking of canes, many of the boys, when thirteen, were then sent to a school called St Lawrence, ‘because it was Christian. Sound teaching on Sundays, which was rare in those days.’
But for the rest of the week, it was savage. And as they gather now, in quiet corners, stories of appalling beatings (and unhappiness) are told.
‘Nothing prepared me for that place,’ says one. ‘It was a different scale, quite brutal. I don’t know why Mr Sykes sent everyone there. We were really in the hands of the sixteen-year-old prefects. The masters tended to turn a blind eye. I was beaten by sixteen-year-olds who would take a fifteen foot run up, before hitting me. There was no escape.’
‘I’m sure you deserved it, Terry!’ says one of them, jovially.
‘Well, I’m sure I did,’ he automatically replies - as the brutalised generally do.
Stories are shared of different times, different days. Remarkably, there were no serious injuries or accidents at the school that they can remember - even though the boys went squirrel shooting (unattended) in the woods with .22 rifles.
‘You could get six pence for a squirrel tale,’ as one excitedly tells me.
They won’t gather again, Titch is right; this is a remarkable one-off. But they gather now from around the world, because something about the experience was precious.
They all want to be here sixty years on, to remember the exploding boilers, the routine racism, the classroom shootings, the mole gassing, exploding travel trunks (another dangerous story)...the camaraderie, the danger and the fun.
And sixty years on, I take a photo of them all, back in the dear old place, with their wives.
‘It made us what we are, in a way,’ says a man as I leave. ‘It was about danger and fun. I think that sums it up best, Simon – danger and fun.’
I’m told he rose high in the Civil Service.