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