A.R.SIMPSON - A DIFFERENT PERSONAL VIEW
I suppose an Old Boy’s view of ARS reflects most of all that period of between five and seven years when one was actually at the School. My own experience of him extended to hearing him speak – and sometimes talking to him – at the OGA annual Reunion Dinners.
My father, an Old Gaytonian of the Ernest Young vintage, “hated” Simpson, in a way he never really articulated. (Incidentally, he also “hated” Randall Williams, although that may have been largely because he switched to rugby from my father’s beloved soccer.) Later, I found the majority of Old Gaytonians also “hated” Simpson, but the older ones who, when I joined, formed the main body of the Association, were Randall Williams boys and the effects of loyalty and change bore on their views.
I joined the School in 1947, when Simpson had been there a year. Older boys spoke kindly of Crowle Ellis, whose interregnum between Williams and Simpson was marked by nothing very much. I met him years later when, as Head of Harrow Weald County, he came to meet us when we played a chess match there. I found him to be a nice man of modest calibre.
Now, if there was one thing Simpson had it was calibre. I did not like him and, frankly, he would not have cared whether I or anyone else liked or disliked him. As an 11 year-old new boy I was in unconditional awe of him and later I was apprehensive of him. But more and more I came to admire him. He had an agenda for excellence and achieved it progressively during my six years there and subsequently.
There have been references on this site to the number of teachers who left when Simpson arrived. Some would simply have retired, some were perhaps too old and tired to meet the demands that an agenda for excellence put on them. But far more than the detractors choose to recall stayed on, and they were almost without exception outstanding teachers. Think of Jumbo Jones, Joe Brister, Spadger Heys, Whiffey King, Beaky Fooks, Doc Hartland – even Twink Bradley. Think of younger men (at the time) like Spud Heafield and Hubie Lane. And think of former Randall Williams pupils Killer King and Charles Crinson.
I was not a good pupil, nor a happy one. I was spasmodically industrious, predominantly idle, independent of spirit (or rebellious, depending on your point of view) and, on reflection, part of that underclass which ARS is accused of discounting. The thing is, I never felt rejected or discounted. In a spasm of industry I studied Latin privately under the benevolent aegis of Hubie Lane and graduated from the C stream to the A stream, but I refused to contemplate a university career. I think I know the reasons for my character defects, which I do not propose to dwell on, and I do not blame Simpson or my teachers for my failure to make the most of the opportunities offered by Harrow County. Nor do I regret anything. There are too many treasured things I would have missed if my life had taken a different course.
One of the benefits of taking Latin to ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level was to be taught once a week by Simpson, when he would work through an “unseen” set as homework the previous week. He was an unorthodox but superlative teacher. He communicated an extraordinary love of his subject and such were the power and energy of his teaching that the sweat would pour from his brow. On the one occasion I failed to do my homework and got caught out he wasted no time on reproach or retribution but plunged back into giving everyone who was prepared to listen the benefit of his precious 40 minutes with us. And there was no subsequent malice.
Let no one suppose I was blinded to his faults. He was a fascist, ruthless in pursuit of his agenda and rode roughshod over even the most reasonable and mildly expressed dissent. He was paranoiac about social or cultural change, and I still marvel that Paul Oliver got a jazz club up and running by calling it the Afro-American Music Society. (Among my treasured memories are Simpson’s announcements in morning assembly when he would pronounce “guitarist” to rhyme with “bitterest” and was obliged to say ”Jellyroll Morton”.) His political extremism must have been anathema to those of a left wing persuasion and were an embarrassment to others, but I never detected racism or heard the “cosmopolitan” word. Indeed, the only dubiously racist pronouncement I heard from any staff member was when the odious Bigham conducted some gathering of CCF members in the School hall and required “Jews and R.C’s to leave the [assembly].” I supposed it was standard army practice and, although it left an unpleasant taste, I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Stories of Simpson’s increasingly eccentric behaviour and utterances came to me long after he left (indeed, long after he left) and I am prepared to believe that he became progressively madder and more obsessive. A driven man, he probably stayed too long. You do run out of ideas. But the excellence he pursued and achieved lasted. You can attribute much of the achievement to the excellence of the staff – but who appointed them? I rest my case on our Nobel Prize winner, Sir Paul Nurse – and many others.
Humourless? Well, up to a point. He occasionally made poor attempts at lofty jokes at School, but I remember one of his last addresses to the OGA Annual Dinner as ex officio President of the Association. He was scintillating, and a generally antipathetic gathering fell about laughing. With splendid timing, he even offered to leave his script with Cardew Robinson. In this, as in so many other respects, he chimed uncannily with Tony Blair’s most admired predecessor, whose last speech in the House as ousted Prime Minister brought the house down. “I’m enjoying this!” she said.
When I read Richard Buckley’s view of ARS I was stunned by the enduring hatred he revealed and the quite extraordinary sense of hurt which wells up through a well-written and thoughtful piece. I cannot find it in myself to hate anyone like that, nor to feel hurt for things which happened so long ago. Not to deal point-by-point with his argument (much is covered above), I was surprised to discover in one of my darkest moments at School (I was near to expulsion) that he did not in fact dislike me. And many of the Guestbook criticisms of Simpson cited by Richard are passing references to his eccentricity. None of them betrays the same hatred; at worst it is an unqualified distaste.
Until the last paragraph above I have deliberately put the word “hated” in quotes. I have rarely found anyone who actually liked Simpson, but I do insist that he was widely admired. I think Jim Golland’s assessment is very close to the mark. I now suddenly realise that, while no one ever said they hated Ernest Young, I cannot recall ever hearing any of his generation saying they liked him; but they all admired him. And, yes, there are many affectionate recollections of Randall Williams which have come my way, but dear old Beaky Fooks, to whom I stayed close for the 53 years of his retirement, once confided to me that Randall was a bully! He spoke in a staff context and, another sudden realisation, I never heard Beaky speak with special affection – or “hatred” – for any of his three headmasters.
I have always been proud to say that I went to Harrow County and, with any number of others (the majority, after all!), I benefited from what it had to offer – however incompletely. And I am grateful to most of my fellow pupils, to most of the staff and to Dr Alexander Russell Simpson.
I feel better now!
Click for Dr. A. R. Simpson - Retirement profile in Gaytonian 1965