Recollections of Harrow County, 1967 to 1972
by Jon Grunewald
I felt sure my memories of Harrow County had evaporated over the course of time, but I was wrong. Search hard in the box-room of your mind and you may find some grime-encrusted images which are worth more than the class photographs.
I think most of us can remember just how passionately we hated Harrow County while we were there. A God-awful place, wasn’t it? What are the signs of a good school? How about displays of children’s work on the walls? If you looked on the walls in a Harrow County classroom you saw grime, graffiti and splashes of white which on examination turned out to be the remains of paper pellets. The pellets covered the ceiling too. Take one biro: dismantle it: chew some paper into a mush and roll it into a ball, then use the barrel of the biro to blow the pellet at another pupil who would be stung in the back of the neck and would turn round indignantly, unable to identify his assailant. Resentment and destructive behaviour were everywhere. You had to screw a hasp and staple to your desk or locker and fit a padlock. Within a week you would find out whether you had used a sufficiently robust padlock or long enough screws, because most of the desks and lockers were jemmied open and the contents defiled. It was hostile territory, and if you had anything of value you knew that there was no reliable way of protecting it from destruction.
The hostility was everywhere. As a tender first-former, the first lesson you had to learn was that your first name was now to be kept secret and henceforth you were to be known only by your surname. Before long, you had to explain to Colonel Bigham (a formidable interrogator) why it was that you were a member of neither the scouts nor the cadets. If he was your biology teacher you could have fun mimicking his pronunciation of amoebae or spirogyra but he could inflict a savage beating with a tennis shoe if he saw anybody touch his car, usually parked for some reason in the playground just where children would play. Colonel Bigham’s sex education lessons were terrifying, mainly because he thought it a heinous crime for anybody to snigger during his classes. A Welsh rugby teacher called Viv Edwards who did not seem to like children would call you damn rabbits and for no very good reason kept threatening to give everyone a slippering. Well, how very dysfunctional, eh?
The staff. Mr Batchelor, the Latin teacher who gave out detentions to our first form class every five minutes and then must have been instructed to stop doing it. Mr Lane, the Latin teacher who was gentle and humane and liked to talk about railways (“now I know you’re trying to lead me down the garden path, but all right, just for a bit”) and Mr Ellenden, the maths teacher who too frequently had to leave the room to fetch the head teacher in order to restore order. Mr Salter (Monsieur L’Escalier), the French teacher who inspired devotion because he seemed to respect his pupils as individuals. Mr Gupta, the Physics teacher whose favourite threat to his pupils was “I break your head”. And that German teacher Mr Tyler, who shouted so much it gave you a headache (he was an excellent teacher in all other respects). Which brings us to the “brilliant but irascible” category – Jim Golland, Gerard Lafferty, Harry Mees. Inspirational, every one of them. After years of teaching which forced you to be a conformist and to pretend to admire every great writer, it was refreshing to hear from Gerard Lafferty that Dylan Thomas was “big, bombastic, phoney nonsense” and very flattering whenever he gave you a OWYJ (oh wise young judge) or a TMB (that’s my boy) at the end of your essay. And bless Jim Golland for his clever idea of “log books” which helped to nurture a boy’s creative writing talents.
I remember the day when Mr Avery gave the school a lecture about the appalling litter situation, in particular the litter that was to be seen around the entrance to the school. When I passed that litter later that day and had a look at it, I realised that it was my Pool Reader Record Book which had been taken from my vandalised locker and torn up and flung in every direction. It all seemed to be part of the Harrow County malaise: blame the superficial problem (litter) rather than the underlying problem (C and D stream boys who felt rejected by the Harrow County elite) and it made me very angry.
And who can forget the toilets? I still remember the horror of my first visit to the “bogs” as a first-former. Cubicles with broken walls, broken doors, excrement smeared everywhere. Boys didn’t really matter, after all. One item of graffiti is etched on my mind: “In these bogs there is no paper, Use your finger as a scraper. Stick it up your shitty arse, Bring it out as brown as brass”. Yup, that’s about right. Bring it out as brown as brass, clean it up and send it to Oxbridge.
(Jon has written the following in the Guestbook:)
Oh, I didn't mean to sadden anyone with my recollections
(Paul Danon's message)- and I suppose I had better come clean and admit that I
was being deliberately controversial.
I think that by today's standards, Harrow County's building and the ethos (the quasi public school atmosphere) were dreadful. But heck, the people were nice enough, many of them. I greatly admired some of the teachers - I should have mentioned Ken Waller who had a wicked subversive sense of humour and made Russian (and Latin I expect, though he never taught me that) great fun.
No, I didn't have that bad a time. It was like - what was it like? - being in Colditz and looking for ways of escape. And your fellow prisoners were not only the boys, but maybe the masters too.