Harrow County School for Boys

Yet another memory of HCS

Ken Elvy

The HCS website, for many of us, has clearly exhumed some poorly buried memories from their shallow graves. Reading through other contributions, I find the raw emotion Simpson is still able to agitate all these years after he stumbled off - half mad and half cut - into the obscurity from whence he came, both disturbing and deeply sad.

I was a Harrow County failure, who lived through Simpson’s swansong from 1959 until his departure when I was in the Fifth Form, witnessing the accelerating decline of the man. I could be generous and credit him with the tragic proportions of a King Lear, ranting against his personal demons, but prefer to compare him to King Canute, because, as I saw it, a pathetic, arrogant old bully tried to hold back the relentless tide of social evolution and was washed away by it. Not before time, he was kicked into history by the “woodpecker” shoes he so despised and quite rightly feared.

I was a last minute entrant to 1D, since my parents had moved during the Summer of 1959 from the south coast to Harrow, without having first secured me a school place. I was painfully shy, without friends in the area, and emotionally unsettled by the disruption to my previous life. I desperately needed a safe haven, not Harrow County: which seemed to me to be labyrinthine and forbidding.

In my first few weeks, I quickly experienced what I would now describe as institutionalised brutality. Coping with other boys, who all seemed so much more knowing, more adaptable and better equipped to survive was bad enough. Coping with some of the masters was significantly worse.

I remember a master - whose name has long since escaped me, but whose face remains vivid - who unfailingly spent the first five minutes of every period twisting boys’ earlobes or pinching their nipples. Sometimes, I suppose as a special treat to himself, he would have one of them bend over a desk so that he could stroke the chosen one’s buttocks with a plimsoll, before administering the beating. Today, of course, he would be put on a Sex Offenders’ Register, but back then he was entrusted with introducing us to great literature. I was never one of his victims - probably not cute enough - but always feared his tastes might change.

Then, later, there was the strange young Physics master, who made no attempt whatever to teach us - banning all practical experiments - but, rather, divided his time between viciously caning boys for trivial offences and monotonously reading textbooks at us verbatim, ensuring that, even now, I associate Science with excruciating boredom. He should probably have been imprisoned for assault, although I suspect he would have enjoyed being the sexual plaything of some psychotic, muscle-bound jailbird.

These are, as so many others have already recounted, mere examples of that unedifying specimen - the inadequate boy-man - teaching then attracted. I condemn Simpson for being both their role model and their apologist, but I regret to say that I must reserve some criticism for the good teachers - the complete men - who should have known better than to tolerate and turn a blind eye to institutionalised brutality.

I do not claim to be particularly deserving. I was lazy and, more seriously, not particularly intelligent: but, what small talent I had was suppressed and not nurtured. 

As I plodded through the D stream, year after year, like other failures I came to terms - eventually - with Simpson and his kind, because I learned, as all D streamers needed to learn, that they enjoyed committing acts of physical and mental cruelty: it was part of their perverted personalities, the consequence of being inadequate boy-men. You only had to look into Bigham’s colourless, cold eyes to realise the man was the living dead, whilst Amos was an early example of Care in the Community gone wrong. 

We came to terms, too, with bullying classmates, because we understood they were simply aping their adult role models, and - when older - bullied in our turn, or like me, just took the trouble to befriend the hardest boys around. 

But, we struggled to reconcile how some of the complete men could both encourage and, simultaneously, confuse and betray us, by apparently legitimising Simpson and his cronies. They could not then - and cannot now - be fully exonerated for being half good. They should have shown more courage of their laudable convictions and defended us. They should, if only by their own personal actions, have demonstrated that institutionalised brutality was illegitimate.

What makes it all so sad for me, is that a few of them really tried to make amends: but, too late for too many.

I was lucky. I was rescued by Harry Mees, who used his strength of personality, rather than my poor O level results, to secure me a place in Lower Sixth Arts, where I rubbed shoulders with such academic luminaries as The Ainley Twins, in the hope that some of their brilliance would rub off on me. I owe Harry so much and will always be grateful to him. In fairness, he was supported by Jim Golland, who, fortunately, was more sympathetic than his amateurish attempts at being sarcastic or ironic had you believe. And, gentle, lovely man, Norm Anderson, who was prepared to tell the lie that I showed promise as an artist, in order to justify my survival.

My time in the Sixth Form was an absolute contrast to what had gone before. Avery, new in, was essentially “Mr Nice but Dim” as a headmaster: John Major, without the sparkling personality. Gerry Lafferty was always encouraging and sincerely protective. Geoff D’Arcy’s notes kept me within sight of The Ainleys when it came to writing essays. And Harry towered above them all, making me believe I had some worth. Of course, another master was there to remind me what an inadequate boy-man looked like: the permanent scowl on his face suggesting he actively disliked all humanity, probably including himself. But, of course, he really didn’t matter. I had survived. I had learned the most important lesson Simpson’s HCS could teach: inadequate boy-men, when removed from the protective darkness of their brick and tile coffin, wither in the daylight and crumble to dust.

When I finally left, I took with me enough A & S levels to go on to university, together with many happy memories of those last years and sufficient self-confidence to take my place in the world beyond Sheepcote Road. I even felt warmly enough towards HCS to later join the Old Gayts drama group and confront my shyness on the same stage from which Simpson used to berate me and all the other failures. It was a wonderful experience, having people applaud my acting and speculating on whether Simpson had ever heard anything so appreciative.

My regrets about HCS are, therefore, not so much for myself as for those of my former D stream contemporaries who left after failing their O levels - those who Harry did not rescue - and who perhaps remember only the institutionalised brutality, because they never experienced how the complete men tried eventually to earn our pardon by counterbalancing it.

Ken Elvy 16/12/01       

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