Harrow County/Gayton High Staff
by Stephen Games
Harry Mees was one of those few masters at HCS with whom one always wanted to send more time, not less. In my case, and in the case of many of my contemporaries (1963-70), that was not always possible. He wasn’t our year master and unless we were studying history – and I didn’t – our only contact with him was through extra-mural activities. That meant scouting and acting: both of them worlds unto themselves but both of them worlds to which he brought insight and humour.
Harry was an original and utterly tantalising. Nothing was ever wasted. We London suburbanites found his Gloucestershire dialect fascinating in itself, and even more fascinating as the medium for delivering pithy, gnomic utterances. “Ya don’t shave good, Steve,” Harry said to me one evening as he was making up my face for a performance in the school hall. No one else in the school called me Steve and I felt this as a real bonding moment. I was even more delighted, though, and wonderfully elevated because at the time, I didn’t shave at all.
And then there was the pipe, a prop that he would hold and gesture with and suck on in a way that always heightened the timing and impact of his remarks.
The voice and the pipe and the remarks made Harry especially appealing for those of us always on the look-out for caricature. We quoted him endlessly: his phrases remain a memorial of our time at HCS – part of the sacred lingo of the school, as other tributes to him will no doubt testify.
I cannot now remember which school productions Harry was involved in except that his responsibility for everything that went on backstage seems to have made him ever present. My first role was in the chorus of Oedipus Rex, led by Mike Cronin, in 1964; my last was playing Birdboot alongside Clive Anderson in The Real Inspector Hound in 1970 – the play in which Michael Portillo played the corpse.) On one occasion backstage, Harry glued false eyebrows onto me – and then pulled them off after the show. The scar – a small patch of skin above my right eye where the eyebrow refused to grow – remained visible for several decades afterwards.
As a Pathfinder, I was not in the same troop as Harry and only saw him on those rare occasions when the four troops of the 4th Harrow Group came together. Our troop was led instead by mysterious adults – Old Gayts themselves – called Bim and Fluff and Squash, for whom we tied knots and adjusted our woggles. Any account of it provides a fascinating window on a hilariously wholesome bygone age, to borrow a quote from a recent book.
The bridge between these two worlds – stage and scouts – was the gang show which I believe Harry would produce. These resurrected a pre-war world of wisecracks and gags that was both monstrously stale and bizarrely alive for novices and old hands alike. In time-honoured fashion we even kneeled on the ground and bounced up and down as we sang “We’re riding along on the crest of a wave”. Innocent days. I took part in one gang show – and that was probably enough – but have distinct memories of Harry’s threat to throw in the towel at the dress rehearsal on the grounds that we were under-prepared and insufficiently serious. In time we got to know that this is what Harry always did, on all shows, to scare us into upping our game: and it always worked.
Not having been taught by him I have no first-hand memories of his teaching to relay but I remember clearly his high reputation among those he did teach – and there was a trickle-down effect that touched all of us. As with the trivial example of my shaving, he inculcated a sense in us of our own premature maturity: taking A-level history with Harry at HCS, it was said (by us, but perhaps by him too), was equivalent to taking undergraduate history anywhere else. His teaching was rounded and went way beyond narrow curricular restraints: he would have hated the teaching climate today.
One illustration of this was someone in my year who fleshed out his English history course by reading a newly-published and much-hailed biography of Gladstone and found it so compelling that, in order to understand Gladstone’s mind better, conducted nightly, imaginary conversations with the Grand Old Man (Gladstone, not Harry). Not something that can be said for every student but typical of how Harry taught HCS boys to see themselves and their academic mission.
In October 2000 someone from the school scouts wrote to me out of the blue, asking for help with a new heating system in the huts. My first instinct was to ask about Harry, to get his address and to write to him. He soon wrote back – in a big, rambling hand. I then decided, on a wave of nostalgia, to organise a reunion of boys and teachers and started contacting people I hadn’t thought of for a third of a century. Harry had said that his legs were troubling him and that he wasn’t very mobile any more so my first thought was that the reunion should be held in Cirencester, where he was now living with his second wife in sheltered accommodation. The plan didn’t materialise but a less ambitious one did, for an event at school in January 2001, and it was especially gratifying that Harry made what was obviously a great effort to attend. He was obviously in pain but equally obviously thrilled to be back in his old stamping ground. And we were thrilled to have him back. He is already much missed.