Harrow County School for Boys

Reminiscences of Colin Mynott - 1948-56

How fascinating to read the reminiscences from Richard Buckley and others, and especially of my contemporary, Gerry Freed. I didn’t recognise the ARSimpson that Richard described and wondered what he and his contemporaries must have done to deserve his backlash. Maybe I was a bit naive in those days – I certainly don’t remember many of the traits described in the message board or in others’ reminiscences. Yes, ARS had hardly known the real world outside education but obviously everyone has their own little world circulating within their cranium. It would have been interesting to have analysed ARS’s at the time. What he may have been, I leave to others. He had ambition for the school and pulled its academic record up by the bootstraps to become one of the most academically successful schools in the UK. You can’t do that without breaking a few eggs, as I discovered later when running manufacturing companies. What ARS did to the school certainly helped me later.

As a background to comments on my time at HCS (1948-56) I should explain that I was raised by an over-protective control freak mother and a diplomatic, somewhat distant and overworked father, both with great ambitions for their only son. Both parents were pupils of the 1905-1915 era and wanted me to benefit from far better education opportunities than they could have dreamed of. So I was first sent to a local kindergarten then to a draconianly strict local mixed-sex prep school in Pinner with sky-high academic standards. You learned the rules of civilised behaviour quickly if you wanted to survive there. Fighting and rudeness between pupils were unheard of: the culture produced a friendly, civilised, non-adversarial environment. Non-conformance brought psychological rather than physical punishment, severe and expertly applied. Everyone knew this and there was a general camaraderie, perhaps solidarity, against the rulers and we all acquiesced quickly to the fairly sensible rules. The few that rebelled were peremptorily and quietly disposed of. Teaching was superb; we all progressed fast. By age 10 most of us could converse reasonably in French, for example.

My parents, both from an administrative clerical background, had no idea what industry or science was about, and envisaged that I would proceed to a respectable profession via the Lower School of John Lyon. They hoped I might do well enough to get a free place at Merchant Taylor via the 11-plus; I failed but was offered HCS. With its rising reputation, after some reflection they deemed this “suitable”.

When I arrived it was a culture shock, like entering a jungle of hostile natives. Discipline was non-existent compared to what I’d been used to. I didn’t know a single pupil and, in contrast to the school I had just left, no one was openly friendly. The norm was monosyllabic replies, hostility and physical violence, mild or otherwise, to get your own way. The school drew from a huge area and few pupils lived anywhere near me. So it was hard to get to know any of them outside school, and anyway they already had their own local friends. No one seemed to share my own personal interests, mostly requiring brain input rather than physical; and few seemed to have much interest in anything at all, which I found sad: what did they do at home when they met their friends?

School seemed to be all about social mix and adversity. I found those long compulsory breaks spent outside in the playground interminably boring. With no one to share interests, I sometimes read a book in a corner. Perhaps if I’d come from a state elementary school, as virtually everyone else had, I would have had a few friends and the right attitude to fit in. Maybe my prior environments had brainwashed self-confidence away. But fit in I didn’t, until in time everyone became a bit more civilised and a bit less adversarial, which took about three years. Perhaps that accounts for some of the difference in my outlook from Richard Buckley’s. I was used to a culture framework where staff leadership made it clear what was acceptable or not, and punished you severely if you didn’t conform (and fellow pupils were friendly). I didn’t expect a human jungle to set the inter-pupil social regime – the staff really couldn’t have cared less that we had to fight it out as long as they weren’t involved and injuries didn’t show. In fact I believe they thought this jungle atmosphere was character forming.

I arrived two years after ARS. Universally known as “Square”, he was the butt of humour but not generally thought to be a nasty person, more an out of touch buffoon. We particularly enjoyed his attempts at local pronunciation. Grass has a long ‘a’ but ‘gas taps’ (gaas taaps) and like words do not. The upper forms really hated his new regime and values, such as insistence on school uniform. A product of never having been outside school or university, he had no idea what the real world was like – just something he might have read about. He was vain. He wouldn’t wear his spectacles in public: he was myopic in more than one sense and would lean towards you to recognise who he was addressing. He was certainly single minded, forthright, focused and ambitious. And not one to acknowledge the existence of feelings, be they of master or pupil.

His insistence on detail culture changes such as school uniform, helped build the school’s long-term reputation. He was not happy with the culture and discipline he found and wanted to change it towards that of the leading public schools. His ideas on academic achievement soon put the school near the top of the UK academic map: we all benefited when it came to finding a place at university. I was offered places at three universities without their even enquiring what A-level results I might achieve. And those who left earlier found it easier to get a better first job, apprenticeship, article, placement, or whatever.

But whereas Richard Buckley evidently found Square a bête noir, I thought other aspects deserved far greater criticism. We respected the masters, most of whom were professional and subject-competent. Their big asset compared to current-day teachers was that the war interrupted their teaching careers in some way or other. This was a great benefit: they had been in the real world and understood what life was about. But there were exceptions.

School music, under the direction of sneering doctor George Thorne was pathetic. (Thus the origin of the clock graffiti – it referred to GS). He exhibited little talent in any direction. He had an obsession with patting younger pupils’ derrieres. (Thus “back to the wall boys, here comes George”.) If ever there was a nasty man it was GT; his sense of justice would have done credit to Idi Amin or Sadaam Hussein. He didn’t like ARS’s new regime. He probably put generations off any appreciation of music. His simple plainsong choir was a joke. And the orchestra wasn’t much better. The really talented musicians kept quiet – for example both O’Brien brothers achieved their LRAMs in the VIth form. Others were Grade 8 level by the 4th form. No way would any of us go near GT.

Biology was a subject that interested me but Big Ham was solely responsible for putting me off. Was ‘Major’ Bigham really an ex-RAF tail gunner? But for him I might now be a doctor or biochemist instead of a professional engineer. Perhaps I should thank him; medicine is now killing people faster than wars. Modern UK  and US medical practice is increasingly a farce, dominated by the commercial interests of Big Pharma, whose ‘correctly prescribed’ drugs, according to the BMA and AMA, kill at least 50,000 UK patients and 110,000 US patients every year. Instead of a medical career, I have thoroughly enjoyed running factories that develop and make products: there’s nothing like it (big boy’s toys). Although I always got on well with Bigham as a person, his idea of teaching was to dictate notes ad nauseam, then walk around with a ruler and rap you over the knuckles if you couldn’t remember every detail he’d dictated five minutes earlier. Boringly dictated notes pass from lecturer to pupil without passing through the minds of either. And, oh boy, were they Boring. And were my knuckles sore.

I found chemistry teaching uninspired, and the homework interminably tedious. Having been taught by Mr Butler previously, Mr Hudson was my first VIth form master (superceded by ?). Nicknamed ‘rubber bung’, he always seemed to have kipper sandwiches for lunch, and arrived at 6.30 a.m every morning because of the early morning cheap fares from Hampstead; married to a blindingly unattractive teacher (but then he was no great adonis himself, with his walrus moustache), he later left to be headmaster of a comprehensive. Suffered perpetual colds through his habit of taking a freezing dip in the school pool every morning upon arrival; well what else do you do it you arrive at 6.30? Back to teaching: what makes life outside school interesting is solving problems by applying knowledge. But there was none of that. It was all about memory and rote learning rather than just teaching the the underlying principles and using them to solve problems. The grounding was useful but we could have been taught far more if it had been inflicted less tediously. Physics I enjoyed and still do, thanks to ‘spadger’ Hayes and Groombridge (he wasn’t a natural disciplinarian “Every time I open my mouth, some fool speaks!” … collapse of class.) An incredibly useful subject that ought to be compulsory for every adult.

For me the ray of light in the science VIth was Maskell’s utterly brilliant maths teaching. Thanks to him, I really understood, and did nearly twice as well in A-level maths as in phys and chem. And I am not a naturally talented mathematician; later at university I struggled with it. I found applied maths interesting; I liked the design and problem-solving element. Killer King was a charming applied maths master, tried really hard to help us, but did not exude Maskell’s clarity.

On other subjects, I was fortunate to be inattentive enough at English to be posted to ‘spud’ Heathfield’s form 4C class. What brilliant teaching of English grammar: quite inspired. I learned more from him about the structure of the english language in one term than in the three previous years of English grammar classes. I still treasure his notes, now carefully transcribed. Previously the only masters I can remember were Mr Connolly of the wooden leg; confiscated a conker in one class, threw it out of the window (hard and expertly) where it hit a passer by (“.. who the B H threw that!” came from below – much appreciated.) And what a joke “Twink” Bradley was; how was he ever allowed to teach anything? He should have been a stand-up (inadvertent) comedian. And how superb Jim Golland’s classes were.

One regret I have is not taking more interest in history and geography; without doubt I would now find Harry Mees’ teaching quite fascinating. But I would still prefer a more logical approach to the subject than jumping around from year to year between a number of apparently unconnected regions and eras: very confusing to a logical mind. I gather it’s still taught that way: no wonder we don’t know our history and its relation to other countries’. In geography, I enjoyed Venn and Crinson’s style but found a lot of the content boring. And I really regret not studying german diligently; it would be so useful now. But then with Simpson’s absurd specialisation regime, we had to give up all but french (but not latin in the A stream) after form 3 if we were intending to take sciences – ludicrous. We didn’t need the extra science but we did need the languages in later life. I have used my french extensively for business, and would have benefited from german and spanish. And latin (which I struggled with) was really valuable to understand other languages’ grammar.

Being over-tall and somewhat under-muscled, I was not well coordinated and hated physical contact sports. So for me HCS sports were depressing; if you weren’t a potential county-class cricketer or rugby player you were doomed. I wanted to swim and play tennis, squash and golf from entry to exit of the school. Instead, I had to make do with cross-country and rounders. I hated rugger – I found it unacceptably physically painful. Eagers put me at hooker, which being so tall nearly broke my back. I did manage tennis in my last year by some fiddling; swimming I had to do out of hours.

In conclusion, what a pity most of my contemporaries don’t appear to have heard of this website. The guest book, thoroughly entertaining, seems to be the province of an exclusive few, none of whom I knew or remember (except for Peter Fowler – his brother Mike contacted and visited me last year). And I had never realised that such names as Lara and Portillo passed through its doors. Amazing.

What a tragedy the school was metamorphosed rather than evolving to the ethos of the current century. What a waste of such excellent staff. Despite any incidents I disliked at the time (mainly instigated by other pupils), in hindsight I felt I was lucky to have experienced the school. If the complainers who contributed reminiscences to the website didn’t like Simpson’s regime, why didn’t they ask their parents to move them? There were plenty of other grammar schools around that took the ones who hadn’t such high 11+ scores. Not as good academically but maybe they would have enjoyed them more. Perhaps they should ask some of the other grammar schools’ ex-pupils about the regime they could have had instead.

Colin Mynott, 2005


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