Harrow County School for Boys

Hugh Skillen, a recollection from Michael Portillo, January 2004.

Hugh Skillen taught me French at Harrow County School for Boys in the mid 1960s.  I have very distinct memories of the experience.  I can picture him now in his light grey suit and flowing gown, chalk in hand, writing words on the blackboard in rather beautiful handwriting, if I remember correctly.  I can hear him giving French dictation.  Indeed amazingly I can recall a phrase from one dictation: "Soudain, un homme passa devant lui comme le vent, son chapeau abaissť" - pronounced rather exquisitely, with just a hint of a Scottish accent.  And I can bring to mind a smile playing across Hugh's lips as he looked out upon our amazed faces, because we couldn't figure out the words at all!

He was a kindly schoolmaster.  I have said enough by mentioning the gown, the chalk (and even the suit!) to make clear that he was, in the best sense of the word, the old-fashioned sort of teacher. He derived great enjoyment from imparting knowledge, and great pleasure from the progress and successes of his pupils.

He was one of that generation whose minds, you sensed, were always half thinking back to the experiences of World War II.  That had been the time when they had lived with heightened senses, called upon at a young age to prepare for the ultimate sacrifice, a generation that had seen the extremes of human behaviour, of heroism and of brutality.  Hugh alluded to the war, but again typical of his generation, he did not tell war stories.  On Fridays it was the custom in the school for those in the Cadet Corps to wear military uniform, and Hugh would teach classes that day in his major's uniform.

Later in life, of course, a sense of duty to the brilliance of his wartime colleagues at Bletchley Park drove him to write very interesting memoirs and records of Britain's secret war.  That then allowed at least some of those whom he had taught to catch a glimpse of Hugh's valuable role in one of the finest military establishments ever set up by this country.

Hugh was a warm-hearted teacher and a gentleman, who inspired by his manner as well as his teaching.  To this day thousands of us may bring him to mind every time we attempt the French language in a restaurant or on a foreign holiday, a memory, which will endure.  On my bookshelves I have the series of monographs that Hugh wrote about the Enigma project.  That supplies Hugh's enduring legacy to historical scholarship, and it hints at his important contribution to the defeat of Nazism.

 

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