Harrow County/Gayton High Staff
by Edward Kerr
Today is one of those days that I hoped would never happen - the day that we have to say goodbye to Harry Mees.
Inevitably, one’s mind is suddenly flooded with memories and I would like to share a few in celebration of Harry’s life and the all-round School Master that he was.
The first is from around 1964, when I was 14 or 15 years old. One of the more irritating of the petty rules that dominated Harrow County at that time was a prohibition on the use of the Central Staircase that led from the front door - unless, you were in the Sixth Form or were en route to or from the Headmaster’s Study or the School Secretary’s Office, both of which could only be reached from that Staircase. This was a rule that was routinely broken, as it was far too inconvenient to use an alternative route. One day I was in a hurry and went down the lower part of the Central Staircase rather quickly, not realising that Harry was just turning the corner to go up the stairs. A couple of stairs from the bottom, we collided, the force of the collision knocking Harry’s pipe out of his mouth and across the staircase. As I picked up his pipe and returned it to him apologetically, he growled “Eddie, that was a waste of good pipe tobacco”. And that was it. No screaming or shouting, no threats of detentions - that wasn’t Harry’s way. He had dealt with the situation in a very measured way, but a very effective way (but, then, he probably thought that it was a silly rule as well).
The next is from a Reunion in March 2001. A couple of other Old Boys and I had helped Harry on to the School Stage. He had not been there for around 15 years. There is a picture of this event at:
We explored the current state of the Stage. Harry’s eyes lit up as we found that the footlights were still in place, apparently still in working condition. No more Spanish Armadas to sink, but Harry was back where he belonged - on the School Stage - no, HIS Stage. And he was enjoying every minute of it.
There were those Masters who believed that Harrow County only really existed to meet the academic needs of potential Oxbridge Candidates. Harry (an Oxford man, himself) was there for everyone. He knew that Education went way beyond the narrow confines of academic work and the Classroom setting. He knew that not all Education could be imposed or directed - that boys needed to find out for themselves and make their own mistakes. There are echoes of Ernest Young here. Today, Educationalists would rationalise this as “Experiential Learning”, but it was a breath of fresh air in the narrow autocratic atmosphere of Harrow County in the early 1960s.
Harry was a master of Experiential Learning, throwing himself into the all-round Education of boys in the School. His work on the Stage and in the Scout Group is well known, but there was more - much more. For example, during the latter part of the Summer Term, the School Swimming Pool was open every evening for an hour or so for any boy who wished to use it. Harry was, of course, one of the small band of Masters who so freely gave up their time to supervise this activity. I am sure that many boys learnt to swim in these sessions - I know that I did (and I did so experientially, rather than by a swimming class).
Of course, Experiential Learning involves taking risks. It was a different age and attitudes to risk and safety were different. At the time, none of us who were involved in one of Harry’s activities realised quite how much trust Harry was putting in us and how much risk he was managing. If we had a problem, Harry would be there to support us and help us resolve that problem. But, if he believed in us, we certainly believed in him - I cannot recall a time when he was let down.
Harry’s involvement with the School Scouts is well known, but the circumstances of it are less well known. By around 1950, the (then) three Scout Troops were bursting at the seams and there was a risk that some boys would not be able to take part. Harry’s approach was to volunteer himself to form a fourth Scout Troop, thus increasing the capacity of the 4th Harrow and avoiding the risk of disappointment. Thus was born the Forester Troop with Harry as Scout Master.
Had Harry not become a Scout Master, there would have been no abseiling into the Inner Quad or from the top of the New Gym. Bridges and Aerial Runways would not have magically appeared at the annual Camp on the School Field every September. A whole raft of other such activities would not have happened and much of the richness of what the Scout Group was able to provide would have been missing. All of them are impossible today, of course - think of all the forms and permissions that would now be necessary for something that we thought of as routine
The pre-Christmas meeting of the School Debating Society always featured Masters proposing and opposing the motion before the House. It was an enormously popular event and the proceedings were almost “Goon Show” like - almost degenerating into chaos, without quite going over the line and always recovering to become almost sane and relevant by the end. Harry always participated, regaling us with the latest exploits of “moi bruvver”, who was an employee of the Great Western Railway and always seemed to have difficulty in controlling goods trains as they proceeded through the Severn Tunnel, due to a broken coupling or some other mishap. Somehow, this story always seemed to be (just about) relevant to the motion before the House. And the occasion when one of Harry’s opponents (I fancy that it was either Gerry Lafferty or Fred Bilson) came to make his contribution. He said that he had, for some time, been trying to find an accurate description of Mr Mees, but had now succeeded. Producing a gardening catalogue, he seemed to read from it - saying something which sounded vaguely Latin and could have been a botanical name. He then “quoted” the description “this kind of nut was originally found under a Gloucestershire hedge”. Cue total uproar (including Harry).
In the Classroom, Harry taught with passion and gusto. Harry would take a stick of chalk and strange shapes would appear in the blackboard as Harry drew something that looked vaguely like a map of Europe. During the next half-hour or so, lots of bold arrows would, intermittently and dramatically, appear on this map as Harry explained the development of the Napoleonic Wars or some such. Several times, Harry would appear in a Classroom to substitute for another Master who was ill or unavailable. Many Masters in this situation would just say “well, I am sure that you have something to be getting on with for the next half-hour”, but not Harry. Harry would enquire what topic we were studying and would then proceed to teach English or Geography or whatever we would otherwise be missing. Harry really enjoyed teaching and was surprised that someone would actually pay him to do it.
Early in my own University Lecturing career, I was frustrated about how a particular Lecture had gone. One of my more experienced colleagues took me to one side and said “don’t worry, the students benefit by just being with you for an hour”. I don’t know whether that is true of me, but it certainly was of Harry. And when I analyse my own Lecturing style, I realise how much it is influenced by two particular Harrow County Masters - one of whom is, inevitably, Harry.
In recent years, Harry contributed to Harrow High School’s appeal to help finance the new Sports Complex by buying a brick. In a typical Harry way, he asked that his brick be merely labelled “Harry”, rationalising that, when people could no longer remember who “Harry” was, it was probably time to be forgotten. I suspect that you are safe for quite a few years yet, Harry.
Weekly meetings of the 4th Harrow Rover Crew would always finish by reciting what I now know to be the last four lines of “Morning Prayer”, a poem by the American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Harry would, therefore, have recited these lines. I would like to quote the whole poem, as it has so much of Harry in it:
Let me today do something that shall take
A little sadness from the world’s vast store
And may I be so favoured as to make
Of joy’s too scanty sum a little more.
Let me not hurt, by any selfish deed
Or thoughtless word, the heart of foe or friend;
Nor would I pass, unseeing, worthy need,
Or sin by silence when I should defend.
However meagre be my worldly wealth,
Let me give something that shall aid my kind -
A word of courage, or a thought of health,
Dropped as I pass for troubled hearts to find.
Let me tonight look back across the span
‘Twixt dawn and dark and to my conscience say -
Because of some good deed to beast or man -
The world is better that I lived today.
Goodbye Harry. Sleep well. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to know you.