Dig weed

GATE 3e Old Highgate School changing rooms BLOG

HIGHGATE SCHOOL IN north London, like many other public (i.e. private) schools in the UK and far fewer state schools, operated (and might still do so) a Combined Cadet Force (CCF). The CCF was designed to provide military training to teenage schoolboys. It provided military experience that would allow its members, if they joined the forces, to advance up the ranks faster than young people who were recruited without this training. It helped give public school boys an earlier chance of commanding their fellow soldiers than those who had not been privileged to attend expensive private schools.

Highgate School had a well equipped CCF. There was an armoury, a drill hall, an assault course, and at least one member of staff dedicated to running the CCF. During the period I attended the school,1965 to 1970, many of our teachers had served in the armed forces during WW2. Some of them were involved with the school’s CCF.

Fortunately for me, participation in the CCF became voluntary instead of compulsory when I reached the age for joining it. I would have hated the discipline, the polishing of belts and boots, the physical activities, and wearing the uniforms made of scratchy materials.

The CCF training took place on Tuesday afternoons. When it ceased to be compulsory, the school decided that those who did not volunteer should spend Tuesday afternoons doing some kind of useful social work

I was first assigned to gardening duty, known as ‘digweed’. Along with another boy, we spent Tuesday afternoons in the garden of one of the boarding houses. Our mission was to clear the weeds from flower beds. Neither my companion nor I could distinguish a weed from a flower. The sight of the house master’s wife bringing us cups of milky tea and biscuits always marked the end of a pointless afternoon, which left the garden in a worse condition that when we arrived.

After a while, I was transferred to visiting the inmates of a local old age home, what is now called a ‘care home’. My task was to chat and cheer up the inmates sitting in high backed padded chairs around the walls of the large sitting room.

In my teens, I was not the chattiest of people. And, all o the elderly inmates except one, were either incapable or uninterested in responding to my attempts to engage them in conversation. The exception was a feisty lady, who was very talkative. The only problem was that she was not there every week. She told me that whenever she was able, she escaped from the home and enjoyed herself until the police brought her back.

One afternoon, I rang the doorbell of the home. When the doors were opened, but only a little, I caught a glimpse of a coffin standing on a trolley in the dimly lit hallway. The matron told me that it would be best that I came back the following week. I had a free afternoon that day.

At some point the school decided that those who did not join the CCF should become members of the newly formed Basic Unit. Instead of wearing miltary uniforms we wore track suits. We spent time ‘square bashing’ or military style drill. I was hopeless at this, turning left when I was supposed to be turning the other way, and not moving in time with the other members of the unit.

One day during Basic Unit, we had to attempt the school’s military assault course. At one place on this, we had to scramble up two metal pipes to reach the flat roof of a seven foot high concrete block house and then to jump off it. I reached the roof, but refused to jump down. I remained up there until the other hundred or so boys had completed the course and were in position for some more drill before the afternoon ended. In desperation, the supervising teachers pleaded with me to jump down otherwise nobody else would be allowed to go home. I told them that did not bother me nor would I jump down. In the end, I was helped down so that the session could be brought to an end.

The best and most enjoyable Tuesday afternoon activity I did was during my last two years at Highgate. I worked as an assistant at the now long since closed New End Hospital in Hampstead. But, more about that another time!

Picture shows the concrete area where the Basic Unit trained

A writer’s confession

HIG 2 BLOG

NOBODY IS PERFECT, not even yours truly.

I was a pupil at London’s Highgate School when I was studying to take state examination, then known as ‘O Levels, taken by 16 year olds. I was studying for 9 subjects, but decided to drop one of them, German. Its grammar was beginning to defeat me and to jeopardize my chances of success in the other 8 subjects.

German was not the only language that was causing me trouble as I approached the O Level exams. Unknown to me and possibly unnoticed by our English teacher, Mr B, my command of written English was insufficient for me to pass the English Language O Level exam. It was the only O Level that I failed. I passed the other subjects, but without displaying much academic excellence.

My failure to achieve the pass marks in English Language cannot be blamed on anyone except me, but there were factors that predisposed me to downfall.

During the examination, I attempted an essay that asked the candidate to discuss whether or not it was fair that pop musicians often earned more than nurses. Being by nature somewhat contrarian, I decided to write an essay in defence of the high remuneration of pop musicians. This idea, to which I no longer subscribe, expressed with poor grammar and spelling, cannot have made the person marking my paper feel sympathetic to me.

The other predisposing factor was our teacher Mr B. He was far more interested in using class time analyzing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin than ensuring that all of his charges were proficient in basic skills such as grammar and essay writing.

Failing English Language did not prevent or delay my commencing the subjects in which I was to prepare for the A Level examinations that were required for admission to university.

One of my three A Level subjects was biology. The senior biology teacher was Mr S, affectionately known by his first name George. He set us three essays per week. On Saturday mornings, we had a double-length period (one and a half hours) with him. During this, he went through our essays, pointing out their good points and bad ones. The essays of one student, ‘P’ were particularly dreadful. His spelling was awful as was his punctuation: there was none except a full stop at the end of each foolscap page. And, to my annoyance and surprise, P passed English Language O Level at the same time as I failed.

Six months after failing my English Language O Level, I took the exam again. I passed with a good grade. I believe that I had learnt a great deal about essay writing from George’s Saturday essay critiquing sessions. I shall always be grateful to him.

On Saturday mornings, parents thinking of sending their sons to Highgate were shown around the school. The biology laboratory, where the essay classes were held, was on the tour. George, who was a genial old fellow, allowed us to relax during the Saturday morning classes. However, he always told us that if we heard the door to the laboratory being opened, we were all to act as uf we were concentrating on something serious while the parents peered in.

On Friday afternoons, we had a three hour practical class during which, for example, we dissected the parts of dogfish not required by fishmongers. Friday lunchtimes found George drinking in one of Highgate Village’s numerous quant pubs.

George used to arrive at the Friday afternoon practical classes having drunk far too much. For the first hour of the class, he was a menace, arguing with anyone unwise enough to approach him. After about an hour, he used to sit down and fall asleep. The last two hours of the class were supervised superbly by George’s deputy, Mr Coombs.

George was a wonderful teacher. He inspired his pupils’ enthusiasm for biology. Like my PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, his range of interest extended from microscopic intracellular detail to the whole organism. Once, when walking to the Dining Hall with George, he stooped down and picked up a fallen tree leaf. He asked us what kind of tree had produced it. None of us knew. He said:

“That’s the trouble with you youngsters. You know all about DNA, but you cannot recognise a leaf from a plane tree.”

George was, as far as we knew, probably celibate. When we reached the part of the biology syllabus that dealt with human reproduction, he told us:

“You know all about this. You can read up the details in the book.”

I have wandered from my starting topic somewhat. Maybe, you were beginning to believe that I was trying to distract you from my sad performance in English and from thinking that, given my record, I have great ‘chutzpah’ writing and publishing books.

Picture shows coat of arms of Highgate School, founded in 1565

A slice of lemon

TU 5 Genuine old Dutch architecture BLOG

 

MY FATHER WAS BORN in Cape Town in South Africa.  His childhood was spent in the small town of Tulbagh not far from Cape Town.  His father had a general store in Tulbagh. The family lived across the yard behind the shop in a house on Church Street.

In 1969, Tulbagh suffered a devastating earthquake.  The town’s authorities decided to rebuild the houses in Church Street to make them resemble the original appearance of the sort of houses that Dutch settlers built when they first arrived in the Cape.

Some years after the earthquake,  my father paid a visit to Tulbagh. He said that his former home in Church Street in neither resembled the place where his family had lived nor had ever looked like it did after its ‘restoration’ following the earthquake. In addition,  he felt that the town looked far smaller than it did when he was a child.

In 2003, I visited Tulbagh with my wife and daughter. We stayed in a bed and  breakfast in one of the picturesque houses on the restored Church Street,  a few doors away from my father’s childhood home.

We visited the house where my father once lived. It was another bed an  breakfast. Had I known it was, I would have booked a room there. The landlady showed us around. She had no idea that her back garden had been part of the yard behind my grandfather’s shop on the next street.

There was a lemon tree laden with lemons growing in the back garden of my father’s former home. We asked our host if we could pick a couple of lemons, one for my father and the other for his only surviving sibling, my aunt Elsa. She agreed.

Before leaving South Africa, wr managed to buy an official school tie as used in Tulbagh High School,  where my father studied (in Afrikaans, rather than his mother tongue English) until he entered Cape Town University.

In 2003, it was  12 years since the official ending of apartheid laws. These laws included prohibition of inter-racial intimate relationships. We expected that by 2003 we would have seen, if not many at least a noticeable noticeable number of mixed-race couples. I think that in the one and a half months we spent in South Africa we saw only three. The members of two of the couples were not born in South Africa. It was only in Tulbagh that we met a young ‘white’ Afrikaner with his arm around a ‘black’ African girl. They were both studying at Tulbagh High School.

When we returned to Cape Town, we gave Elsa the lemon that had been growing in the back garden of her childhood home in Tulbagh. She showed little interest in it and put aside.

A day or so later, Elsa was preparing gin and tonic for us at sunset. She need a lemon. Her eyes fell on the lemon that we had brought from Tulbagh. She seized it, and cut slices of it to drop into our drinks. So much for sentimentality!

As for the High School tie, we presented that to my father when we got back to London. He thanked us, then said:

“ I don’t need that. I left the school long ago.”

I wonder if you know…

I do not know how many millions of people live in Calcutta, but I know it is well in excess of 14 million.

One day, a friend, M, met us in London. He told us that a mutual friend, D, was married to a woman born in Calcutta. As my wife went to school in that city, M said to her: ” You might know D’s wife.”

My wife replied: “Do you realise how many people live in Calcutta, M?”

Then after a moment, she asked; “What is her name?”

M mentioned a name. Hearing this, my wife answered: “She was a year junior to me at school.”

I thought it was amazing how small the world can seem even when a city as huge as Calcutta is being discussed.

Sergeant B

gymnast near assorted country flags

 

I have always been hopeless at all physical activities such as sports and gymnastics. I enjoy walking and have in the past played tennis half-heartedly.

At school, we had to attend gymnastics classes (‘gym’ for short). In the school I attended between the ages of 8 and 13, gym classes were held at the gymnasium at the public baths in London’s Swiss Cottage. The gym teachers there took a delight in making a misery of the lives of those, like me, who were no good at gym. 

When I moved to Highgate School, my senior (or high) school, things changed for the better. Gym classes were held in the school’s own rather antiquated gymnasium beside the unheated open-air swimming pool. The classes were conducted by a retired military man, Sergeant B.  He was not in the least bit interested in those, like me, without any skills in gymnastics. All that he wanted was that the useless members of the class kept well out of the way of those who had some aptitude for gym. This suited me fine. I used to spend the gym classes seated at one edge of the room, doing nothing.

In summer, we had to swim in the open-air pool. This was quite comfortable if it was raining, but it felt icy cold on a warm sunny day. As with gym, swimming was not one of my strengths. Once again, Sergeant B was not interested in people like me. The poor or non-swimmers were told to stand in the shallow end of the pool and to keep out of the way of the rest of the class.

No doubt it would have been better if Sergeant B had encouraged the ‘useless’ members of the class to gain some enthusiasm for gym and swimming, but I cannot say that I regretted his neglect.

Sergeant B retired many years ago. Nowadays, pupils at Highgate School cannot expect such a casual approach when it comes to physical exercises.

 

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

Catching up with the past: Chicago

chicago theatre

 

During the last three months of 1963, while my father was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, I attended the university’s high school, the Lab School. While we were in Chicago, President John F Kennedy was assassinated.

I was put in the PreFreshman class with pupils who were one or two years older than me. Everyone was very kind and friendly towards me, and a bit curious about having a boy from England amongst them.

I remember being asked about some green plant that the British loved to eat. I had no idea what the questioner was talking about until I realised that he was referring to watercress. Another of my fellow students was surprised that the word ‘bloody’ was a swear word in British English.

I left the Lab School in December 1963 and, sadly, lost all contact with my lovely new school friends. In 1963, there was no Internet and international telephone calls were quite expensive. Hence, keeping up with people living far away was much more difficult than it is today.

Fifty six years later, in 2019, I made contact (via social media) with Steve, who remembered me from my brief stay at the Lab School. He remembered that I had introduced him to the hobby of train spotting. I do not recall that, but many years have passed since then.

A few days ago, Steve came to have dinner with us. I am not certain that either of us recognised each other after over half a century of separation, but that did not matter as Steve turned out to be a very congenial guest and we engaged in interesting conversations. We reminisced briefly about Chicago, but spent most of the evening discussing other topics.

Although, as already mentioned, I did not recognise Steve and barely recollected him, I felt a wave of pleasure catching up with the ever so distant past.

 

 

Photo by Leon Macapagal on Pexels.com

Out of tune

Highg

 

I have never been praised for having a good singing voice for a good reason. That is because  I do not have one.

I entered north London’s Highgate School, my secondary school, in 1965 having passed the fairly tough Common Entrance examinations. On the second day there, I took part in a football trial, and was advised not to play football at school. Soon after this, all of the new entrants to the school had to take a voice test. This involved standing in a long queue. One by one we reached a grand piano at which the senior music teacher, a Mr ‘Cherry’ Chapman, sat. As each boy arrived at the piano, Mr Chapman pressed one of the piano’s keys, and the boy made a sound. Depending on this sound, Mr Chapman was able to determine who had a voice good enough to be used in a choir and who did not. When it was my turn, I must have made a sound resembling that which you make for the doctor when he asks you to stick out your tongue and say “aaaaah”. My sound disqualified me from joining the choir.

One day a week, those in the choir spent an hour before lunch at choir practice. The rest of us were confined to classrooms where we were expected to read a book of our choice for one hour. This was no hardship in my case.

The pupils at Highgate School were divided into ‘houses’. Each house contained pupils from throughout the school. I was in Heathgate House, a ‘house’ for day boys rather than boarders. There were numerous inter-house competitions for various sports activities. Once a year, there was an inter-house singing competition. Each house had to produce its own choir, choose a song, practice it, and then sing it on the day of the contest. The first time that this competition occurred after I entered the school, Heathgate chose to sing (in French) the aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle from the opera Carmen by Bizet.

Apparently, my voice detracted from the quality of Heathgate’s choir, and I was asked to leave the other singers. This was possible because the rules of the competition did not insist on every member of a house being included in the choir. Without me, Heathgate managed to win the contest.

Whenever I hear the aria, which was sung in the competition, I remember that event back at Highgate School. Unlike Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which I had to study for a state examination and grew to hate, I still enjoy listening to performances of Carmen.

 

Picture source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

A puff of smoke

Three students

 

My father gave up smoking when I was about eight years old. As far as I know, my mother never smoked. I had an aunt who smoked, and entertained us by creating smoke rings with exhaled cigarette smoke. Visitors to our home smoked, so I was not completely isolated from cigarettes and so on during my earliest years. 

I was about 13 or 14 when I went on a field trip with other boys from my class. On that outing, I was shocked to see many of my fellow pupils lighting up cigarettes when we were out of sight of our teachers. I did not realise until that moment thay young children smoked.

In those early years, and possibly still today, I was a contrarian. Being that sort of person and seeing my peers smoking made me decide never to even try smoking, and  this situation remains unchanged tosay, so many decades later. It was not for health reasons nor because of economic problems that I have never taken up smoking. I simply did not want to be one of the crowd.

I often wonder if the situation had been reversed whether I would have become a smoker. If no one else had been smoking, would I have lit up just to be different? I doubt it because as a child I was far from adventurous.

Running

 

On my first day at my secondary school, Highgate School in north London, I was asked to choose which sports I would like to participate in. As the only one on the list that I had heard of was football (soccer), I chose that. On the following day, I had to join the other new boys in a trial game. I was horrified by how rough everyone was during this match.

The day after the match, two senior boys came to speak to me. They regretfully announced that I was not considered good enough to play football at Highgate. That did not surprise me, but what did was how solemnly they announced the news to me. The two school officials told me that I could select another sporting activity. I chose ‘cross-country running’, a sport that I had never heard of. I was told that I had chosen well. And, so I had.

Cross-country running was almost completely unsupervised. We were trusted to get changed into running clothes and then to trot around a route through the grounds of nearby Kenwood House. Being unsupervised, I saw no reason to run or to get tired. 

My system on games’ days was to get changed, visit the school ‘tuck shop’, buy some snacks or confectionary, and then to take a leisurely stroll through the beautiful grounds of Kenwood.

Once a term, we were accompanied by our house-master on a run. He tended to lead us through rough ground and marshy areas. On one occasion, he stopped me and said:

“You don’t look muddy, Yamey”

I replied:

“Well, Mr Bowles, I thought that the object of the run was to get exercise rather than to collect mud.”

Much to Mr Bowles’ credit, he accepted my explanation, which was not the whole truth. Actually, I wanted to avoid getting dirty so that I would not need to waste time having a shower at the end of the afternoon,   which would have delayed my departure for home.

Why?

ADAMLITTLE

 

In the early 1960s, I attended a preparatory (‘prep’) school between Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park in north-west London. A prep school in the UK is a place that young children aged between 5 and 11 to 13 years study in order to pass examinations that will admit them to Public Schools, which, despite the name, are actually private schools.

At my prep school, The Hall School, we were made to sit in alphabetical order (by surname) in the classrooms. We were addressed by our surnames. I suppose arranging us alphabetically might have helped the teachers remember who was who.

My surname is Yamey, so I always sat in one corner of the classroom. There were often no other boys at my end of the alphabet, although occasionally I was in the same class as someone with the surname Yeoman or Zangwill.

Often, we had to learn poetry off by heart (by rote). We would then have to recite the poem in class. Invariably, the teachers began be asking the boy at the beginning of the alphabet to commence the recitations. Then, the other boys in the class took their turns, as the teacher worked his way down the surnames towards the end of the alphabet. Often the bell marking the end of our 45 minute lessons rang before the teacher reached my end of the alphabet and I was spared the embarrassment of having to try to recite a poem that I was never able to remember. I was hopeless at learning poetry, or anything else, by heart. I can only remember things if I can put them into some conceptual framework in my mind. Poetry did not seem to fit anywhere in my head!

What continues to surprise me is the lack of imagination of our teachers. Why did they always start asking us to recite by beginning with the pupil whose surname was at the beginning of the alphabet? Why did they not begin at Y or Z and work in the other direction?

Many years later, our 6 or 7 year old daughter attended a school in which students were asked to do things in alphabetical order of their surnames. Unlike me, she was always keen to take part in class activitues. So, one day she informed the school that she  her surname had been changed to one begining with D. That way, she was always asked to participate in class activities that were being done in accordance with the alphabetical order of the children’s surnames. 

All went well until we received the termly bill for the school fees. It was addressed not to Dr and Mrs Yamey, but to Dr and Mrs D…. I told our daughter that as the bill was not addressed to us, I would not be able to honour it. Our daughter quickly agreed to change her surname back to Yamey.