Reminiscences of Mr. H. W. Brister (Mathematics Master 1920-54)
"Fond Memory Brings the Light of Other Days"
If it be true that "a day to a childhood seems a year, and years like passing ages", then 34 years must seem like an eternity to some of our juniors. 34 years is the length of time that I have been at H.C.S. Just think of 34 sets of New Boys coming into the school; 34 Certificate Examinations; 34 Sports Days; 34 Seasons of Football and Cricket, and so on. Try to imagine how many sets of examination papers I have marked; how many reports I have written; how many boys I have seen come and go. And when in addition it is remembered that these have been very crowded years, full of interesting and continuous activity, you will realise that to do justice to the request for "reminiscences" would require many more pages than are at my disposal in this magazine.
The title that I have chosen above sets the pattern for what is to follow and the operative word is light. I hope to entertain you with some of the lighter and more amusing incidents that have occurred during these years. Where to begin? What to omit? What to include? That is the problem. Shall I tell you of the Golden Age that began with the Gayton Fair and inaugurated the Pavilion Fund? Shall I tell you of the many activities that were planned and carried out over the succeeding years to raise money to provide the School with a Sports Pavilion, a Swimming Bath and later an Organ? I could interest you with accounts of Concerts, Dramatic and Musical Entertainments, with Exhibitions of Practical Work, Fêtes, Sales of Work, Jumble Sales, Stop Watch and Who's Who competitions etc., a large and varied category of planned events in which Staff, Boys, Old Boys, Parents' Union and Mothers' Sewing Party worked in close harmony and co-operation for the welfare of the School. I count these days as the happiest in my teaching career; the good fellowship engendered was a tonic; the goodwill displayed a revelation; and the time involved well spent. In fact we reckoned less in time spent than in joy received. True happiness is indeed found in giving to a worthy cause.
But to return to the lighter side of our task. I could tell you of many happy days spent in camp with our School Scouts. I often think of those half-cooked gammon rashers at Sheringham and of suet puddings whose consistency was of well-chewed Spearmint. You may find some amusement in the story of the young Scout who wishing to take home to his parents a souvenir of his first camp, caught a couple of fish, and after wrapping them in paper, put them in his kit-bag, his storehouse by day but his pillow at night; and how after a week his fellows complained of an obnoxious smell, origin unknown. It really was the champion of all smells, and it took us quite a time to discover the origin. You may also be interested to hear about the "counter-attack" that Mr. Amos and I carried out against certain scouts at Dover who thought it great fun to indulge in the ancient game of "letting down tents", especially those of Masters. Mr. Amos and I were reclining at ease one Sunday afternoon when suddenly the tent started to collapse. Being Old Campaigners and knowing most of the tricks, we just looked at each other, and without a word picked upa belt each and went into action. Guided by the throaty chuckles that emanated from a nearby tent, Mr. Amos went in the front to ferret them out, whilst I went round to the back. Now these Niger tents are low in the ridge, and to emerge one has to bend double. Just as I reached the back, a posterior covered tightly with a pair of shorts made its appearance. What a target! Swish! The surprised victim, still chuckling with real glee, immediately jumped round and started to re-enter the tent, forgetful of the Nemesis that waited him inside. In two minutes that action was over; Mr. Amos and I returned to our restful pallets, and Peace reigned throughout the camp. I have seen the leader of the aggressors many times since and we have had many a good laugh over the incident. Clearly a case of the Mailed Fist in the Velvet Glove.
Speech Days! What a feast of oratory has regaled my ears in 34 years, although I must admit to some boredom on occasions. The finest oratorical effort, in my opinion, was that of Lord Linlithgow (1923, I believe), whose speech was in the traditional style of the great Victorian orators, an art which, alas, seems to have become defunct in these more democratic days. On another occasion, I vividly remember the "lapsus linguae" of a much respected and famous Parliamentarian, who in describing the process of Medical Science in relation to Diabetes and Insulin, used by mistake a term that is not "de rigueur" in mixed company. One could almost feel the deathly hush that followed; but the ensuing outburst of spontaneous laughter relieved the embarrassing tension. Nor can I forget the "faux pas" committed by a School Captain on the occasion when Sir Laurance and Lady Weaver were the guests of the School. After the prizes had been distributed and the usual compliments paid to Lady Weaver, the captain arose and called for three cheers for "Sir Lady Weaver", to the huge delight of the assembled audience. However, the Captain recovered his equanimity and the following cheers were given with added zest.
Staff versus School Matches in association and rugby Football were a regular feature of School life in these early days and some very exciting tussles ensued. One game at Soccer remains in my memory because although generally, the Staff were on the losing side, in this game we won the match by 1-0 despite the almost continual bombardment of our goal. the Staff goalkeeper was in top form, and unlike the Ancient Mariner, who, you will remember, "stoppeth on of three", our goalkeeper stopped them all, no matter from which direction they came. About the middle of the second session, with the whole of the School Eleven in our half, the ball from a goalkick landed at the feet of our centre-forward, who running forward a few yards, took a long shot at the opponents' goal. Meanwhile the School goalkeeper, bored with inactivity, was leaning against the goalpost gazing into the distance, his mind quite detached from the game and unaware of the approaching peril. Time stood still and so did the two teams; there was an expectant hush all round the field. The ball was speeding rapidly towards its target. The goalkeeper, sensing the hush, brough his mind back to the immediate present just too late and he had the distressing experience of watching the ball drop well out of his reach into the farther corner of the net. A lucky goal? Maybe! Or a chance well taken! Fortune smiles on the valiant.
We have also had some very interesting games at Rugby, one of which remains vividly in my memory. It was played on the site now reserved for the erection of the New Technical College, and I was asked to play at Back. Now in those days my knowledge of Rugby was somewhat limited. I was given to understand that my job was to grab the ball, and kick for Touch as far up the field as possible. Also, if any of the opposition had the temerity to make a dash for our goal line, my job was to bring him low. I felt somewhat as the French army must have felt at Verdun in 1915 when their cry was "Ils ne passeront pas". And pass they did not. I would like you to think, of course, that this was due to my resolute resistance at Back. But the truth must prevail. It was the magnificent work of our three-quarters, including such stalwarts as Mr. Amos and Mr. Webb, that prevented our downfall. So well was I covered that not once did I have to display my prowess in tackling; and only once during the whole game was I left alone to face the oncoming tide of lusty youth. And then! Ah then! I committed the unpardonable sin of kicking the ball as if it were spherical. Fortunately my instep met the ball along the middle of its major axis and it sped very fast and low towards touch, much to the consternation of the oncoming pack, and much more to the disgust of a junior spectator who, with jaws agape, was vociferously urging the goal-hungry forwards on to the kill. The ball took him amidships and his further interest in the game quickly evaporated. I hesitate to think what Mr. Gerwyn Williams would have thought of my unorthodox display, but fortunately for me, I imagine that he was at that time just about enjoying his first birthday.
At Cricket, too, we have had many exciting and interesting games. Though generally on the losing side, the Staff always put up a good show, although very short of match practice. In one game I remember, one of the School eleven was getting well set and I decided that something would have to be done. I was bowling at the time and in the middle of an over I stopped and signalled to First Slip to move a little towards the wicket. Then I went back, turned and bowled. Fortunately the ball was of good length on the off stump and swinging away a little. The batsman played forward and the ball, touching the edge, went straight as a die into the hands of - well. can you guess? - First Slip, who took the chance well, and back went the batsman to the Pavilion, giving me as old-fashioned look as he passed me. Hypnotism? Auto-suggestion? Or sheer luck? Tke your choice. You cannot expect a magician to explain his tricks. Then there was the occasion during the tea interval, when in the course of a speech, I warned the School Team to beware of our "mystery" bowler who was going to bowl directly after tea. I described how this bowler tossed the ball high in the air and when it reached its peak it would drop very quickly, would spin in either direction and then make for the middle stump. Strange to say, the first ball bowled by our "mysterious" bowler did perform somewhat as described (I think it slipped out of the bowler's hand) and although it did not take the wicket, it made the batsman think twice. Thereafter the bowler was treated with exaggerated respect and at the end returned a very good analysis. There were many other incidents of note in these games. Our greatest joy was in attempting to hit a School bowler for six. This was accomplished on at least two occasions when the ball flew over the fence into Kenton Lane, but we never succeeded in hitting the School clock. Then there was the Australian student who had joined the Staff for a year's experience. He was our wicket-keeper, and a very good one, too. At one stage of the game we needed a change of bowling and asked him to have a go. Now many of you have seen Miller bowling bumpers, but they were nothing compared to these expresses. The first bounce was in the middle of the pitch and the second down by the long grass at the side of the field. Six balls - twenty-four byes! At the end of the over we put him back at wicket where he was less of a menace to our prospects. That game, I think, we won by a very small margin.
The Staff on the Stage. During the years 1927 to 1930, the Staff ran a series of Variety Concerts, partly to entertain the School, partly to raise funds for local charities, but chiefly for our own amusement. Nearly all the staff took part in some capacity or other, those not caring for the limelight being responsible for the back-stage arrangements. We always played to very full audiences, by which I mean that the Hall was full and the audience very appreciative. Lots of juniors sat on benches at the front of the Hall; more were accomodated on the window-ledges; the body of the Hall was occupied by parents; and the usual "gatecrashers" cluttered up the doorway. Each performance lasted for about 3 hours and there was no dearth of "turns". Those whose voices had some claim to quality formed themselves into Duets and Quartettes; amongst these were Mr. Heys, Mr. Parkinson and Mr. Jones who retired a few years ago. Mr. Thorn throughout acted as our Musical Director. Others with voices of less note took part in lighter acts. For example, there were the "Four Jolly Sailormen" attired in small sailor hats made by the Mothers' Sewing Party. Then there was the Nonette, each member of which sang a verse with concerted chorus reminding the school that we kept "A Little List" (Gilbert and Sullivan but our Lister's name was? Only one guess allowed).
"As sometimes it must happen that a victim must be found,
We keep a little list; we keep a little list
Of naughty boys whose conduct and whose work is never sound
And who never would be missed, never would be missed."
Over the years we must have composed almost fifty of these verses. I remember Mr. Fooks taking his courage into his hands, and adorned with a wig that rendered him almost unrecognisable, giving a recitation of which I remember only the last line of each verse, "so I murdered him that night". And then there was the Master (of late revered memory) who sang that old song, "Where did you get that hat?" On his head he wore a number of hats in diminishing order of size, which he removed, one at a time, after each verse. And as an encore, he sang a song burlesquing some of the clichés that occur in the Victorian type of popular novelette, "Her eyes swept the room", or "Her eyes fell into her lap." Nor must I forget Mr. Duke and partner as cross-talk comedians in the parts of Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Sheen. I must also tell you of our "lady soubrette" (Yes! You know him well) who dressed in ballet skirt with dancing shoes, sang a song in French, assisted by four gentlemen of the chorus (two of them you know) complete with straw hats and silver-headed canes a là mode de Maurice Chevalier. Whilst the gentlemen sand the chorus and moved to a seroes of steps which they invented and "perfected" themselves, the "lady" went through a series of gyrations and pirouettes reminiscent of the ballet troupe who recently visited the School. The song was entitled "Les longs pantelons" and the chorus began:
"C'est chic les longs, les longs pantelons
Qui vont le long, le long des talons.
Ca vous donne une silhouette admirable," etc.
During the course of these Concerts we always included one or two One Act Plays. I well remember Mr. Attridge taking the lead in "The Ghost of Jerry Bundler" and in several others. Then there were the home-produced plays. The first was a War scene entitled "Xmas Eve 1915 - somewhere in France, which gave us the opportunity of singing all the old War Songs of the First World War. Rifles were borrowed from the Cadet Corps of a neighboring school; and many of us borrowed uniforms from parents so that one's rank in the Platoon was determined by the uniform that fitted. My parent was a Corporal and hence I was of the same rank. On other occasions we produced plays that burlesqued in a friendly way some aspect of School life; and these in succession were entitled "Tests of Will and Wit" and "Who Wrecks the Growth of Years." A large number of the staff took part in these amusing episodes and all with fancy names. One was called Ivan Austin (and so he had); and you'll never guess who was called Andy Craft in one and A. S. Carew Driver in another. Another Master was names S. Amos Ewers (You have guessed wrongly this time). This name led to quite a lot of confusion, for when the Inspector (named B. Knott Dunne) asked the boy his name, the boy naturally replied S. Amos Ewers, and it took a page of the script to sort that out. After that the Inspector asked him where he lived and the reply was Ware (another page of script). Then the Inspector asked "What street do you live in?" and would you believe it, the boy answered "Watt Street". Well! well! No wonder the Inspector gave up the unequal struggle in disgust.
How the pen runs on when Memory is the theme! I have dealt with some of the more amusing episodes in these long years. But you must not think that life was one long series of amusements. Indeed, on the contrary, there is much of a serious nature to be written concerning these years and, who knows, perhaps in the future a colleague, with a more fluent pen than mine, may attempt to do justice to these all-important years in the School's history. Particularly should some account of the School's experience during the War Years (1939-45) be recorded ... of our tenancy of the Science Block at Harrow School, of the difficulties of teaching in the Air Raid shelters at School; of the formation of the School Squadron of the A.T.C.; of those happy and laborious Harvest camps at Haddenham (Bucks); and our reactions to the "doodle-bugs" and the means taken to counter their menace.
Finally, to those who think that these reminiscences err on the side of "lightness", let me remind them that the best beer always has the best "froth" and where there's plenty of "top" there is always good "body" underneath . My aim has been to show that much "industry" was accompanied with "cheerfulness" and that all our doings were governed by the advice given by St. Peter in his first Epistle, chapter 2, verse 17; and to all you Gaytonians I would say, "Go thou and do likeness", because I am certain that if you follow St. Peter's advice, then ... (See St. Paul's Epistle to the Phillippians, chapter 4, last sentence of verse 9.)
H. W. Brister
Source: Gayton Times, July 1954