I went to small, all-boys prep school in Northumberland called Mowden Hall School, which still exists and is now a mixed prep school. In fact, my father went there the first year it moved to Northumberland after the Second World War. It seems so old fashioned and long ago, as we learnt maths from log books and were taught how to use slide rules, and there were no computers and Wales were great at rugby.
I cannot remember much about it really as it was all a blur, except for:
- Learning how to make a bed properly with sharp edges. We would need to stand in silence to attention beside our beds after we had made them to allow Matron to say that we could go down after breakfast. We slept on hard, wooden beds, with thin mattresses and only a sheet and thin rug for heat, which (with no dormitory heating) was freezing in the winter. It taught you never to move in your sleep as this would wake you up when you moved to a cold patch, and also to run sideways in your bed when you got in, so that the friction heated up the sheets.
- The forced marches, two-by-two in our brown boiler suits, in the morning before breakfast in silence to the teachers’ houses and back when we were juniors, then when we were older (oh the privilege you might think) a forced run for a mile down the South Drive before breakfast to keep you fit, but we already did 2 – 3 hours of games every day (rugby in Christmas and Easter terms and cricket & athletics in the Summer term).
- Having to wear shorts all year round, until you became a prefect aged 12/13 when you could wear long trousers, and freezing cold Airtex T-Shirts in the Summer (these were basically a material with holes in it to keep you cool in the heat, but we were at school in Northumberland, which is not renowned for its heatwaves).
- Some strange culinary delights: rumours that catfood tins had been seen out the back of the kitchens on the day we ate bright red meat in our shepherds’ pie; plates piled high with butter beans that we were forced to eat down, however vile they tasted – I still cannot eat them; gloopy, bright pink Angel Delight with lumps in it still as it had never been mixed thoroughly; or (for breakfast) fried eggs with a thick plasticky coating congealed onto the top, Marmite on Toast or Kojak’s Heads On Toast (baked beans in toast); but then there was custard and the choice of sweet tea or normal tea from 2 large urns that we drank in plastic mugs, and tuck on Sundays after Church. I think my love of tea started at school as I would never have survived without its basic nutrients of water, milk and sugar and heat.
- At meal times, after grace was said, you had to eat in silence until the pudding course, when a bell was rung and the seniors would clear the tables and bring out the pudding and bowls. The pudding was served, then a bell was rung and you could talk.
- There were also loads of positives: the slipper and pillow fights were great and involved loads of people; it taught you to survive in lean, mean conditions – I have never wanted for much luxury ever since and will eat anything that’s thrown at me, except for lasagne and butter beans; it gave me a love of books, science, nature and the outdoors.
Here are some extracts from the school reports that paint a picture that are strangely different from how I remember it. I had thought I had tried quite hard most of the time, but my teachers obviously saw me as a lazy and middling pupil. Except for where they did not appear to know who you were with those unhelpful reports that read “Satisfactory” or “Good progress”, they did not hold back their punches in the reports.
Faint praise – about the best it got
“Good: he has the ability to do really well, eventually.” [Latin, Trinity 1978, Age 10.8 – MRi]
“Without showing any natural ability, he appears capable of coping with any new difficulty as it arises.” [French, Trinity 1978, Age 10.8 – MRi]
“He is young & lacking in experience but, I feel, has latent ability, which has yet to come to light.” [Mathematics, Christmas 1979, Age 12.0 – S1]
“He is cheerful and works with interest…” [Art, Christmas 1979, Age 12.0 – S1]
“His standard of work has generally improved, though his attitude remains rather immature.” [History, Easter 1980, Age 12.4 – S1]
Lazy, or just bored with the teaching?
“He works very well within himself and continues to make good progress without any fear of strain.” [French, Michaelmas 1977, Age 10.0 – MRi]
“A high mark, but in comparison to the rest of the form this is an appalling state of affairs. He has given the minimum amount of work this term to attain respectable marks. His marks are fair – his position is unsatisfactory.” [Geography, Lent 1978, Age 10.4 – MRi]
“He has a good brain and an eye (and even a word!) for imaginative detail, but he is ever chary of over-taxing either.” [English, Trinity 1978, Age 10.8 – MRi]
“I sometimes feel that he needs a “swift kick” to galvanise him into action.” [Academic Report, Christmas 1978, Age 11.0 – S2]
“Competent, but unexciting: he works at great length when, as in the case of his project, self-motivated, but more usually exceedingly difficult to prod him out of somnolence.” [English, Easter 1979, Age 11.4 – S2]
“I am beginning to think that the detonation of a bomb beneath him at regular intervals might well be beneficial. Is he really producing – ever – the best standard of which he is capable? I very much doubt it?” [Latin, Easter 1979, Age 11.4 – S2]
Not a classicist
“His knowledge of grammar is fair, but his use or application of it in the exam was depressingly bad. I have the impression (I hope that I am wrong) that his somewhat sardonic sense of humour is coupled with an unwillingness to lower himself to the nitty-gritty of hard work and learning.” [Latin, Christmas 1978, Age 11.0 – S2]
“At the moment he is a grammar-mangler of the first water.” [Latin, Summer 1979, Age 11.0 – S2]
“…and I do wish he would not appear quite so saturninely pessimistic in class.” [Latin, Christmas 1979, Age 12.0 – S1]
“He often knows what is the right answer, and yet fails to achieve accuracy – “Meliora probo, sed deteriora sequor“* – which I need not translate. It is particularly disappointing to see his English-Latin work continually marred by elementary grammar mistakes. He must get a grip on himself; he seems to have developed a maturity of person which has not carried over to his written work.” [Latin, Easter 1980, Age 12.4 – S1]
Note *A misquote of Ovid who wrote “Video meliora, proboque; deteriora sequor” which means “I see the better course, and approve; I follow the worse.”
Not a natural sportsman, or perhaps did not enjoy rugby
“He is not slow and he has glimmerings of a natural jinking action…” [Games, Lent 1978, Age 10.4 – MRi]
“He has played quite well, but always at arm’s length. Unless he is prepared to commit himself fully, his promising ball skills will seldom be exercised.” [Games, Easter 1979, Age 11.4 – S2]
“…he tends to avoid the more violent physical aspects of the former [as a forward], while playing in the latter capacity [as a back] affords him too much opportunity to immerse himself in conversation and thus forget about the game!” [Games, Michaelmas 1977, Age 10.0 – MRi]
“…his performance throughout the term has been disappointing. I appreciate his lack of enthusiasm for the game [rugby] off the field but he is now old enough to realise the urgency expected of him on the field – particularly during a match.” [Games, Michaelmas 1979, Age 12.0 – S1]