Rough Boys in B5 - 1960

by Peter Fowler

I haven’t really thought about Harrow County for a couple of decades: in the late 60s or early 70s, at some point, I wrote in response to a call from Jim Golland for articles for some anniversary magazine that I guess never quite got done. Or, at least, if it did get done, my pieces didn’t make the grade, which wouldn’t surprise me considering the attitudes I had then. As far as I remember – I certainly don’t have copies – the pieces were written stoned and written viciously and probably had little coherence. They would have been, given the moment, savage attacks from some indefinable anarchist viewpoint and written as snapshots of a road that I thought would irreversibly lead to revolution. 1969 and 1970: what crazy years they were.

The Web Site has got me thinking again; and I still, to my surprise, hold many of the opinions I held thirty years ago. The school moulded me. But, in that shaping process, it is the collective experience of the school that remains important. It is not just, therefore, that teacher x was wonderful or that the Headmaster flirted with fascism in his Latin lessons: it is the pupils that I revered and loathed; the rituals of playing a strange game in the inner quad with a pencil rubber; the coldness of cross country runs; staring at the honours board in the Main Hall at assembly, with each annual gaze differently angled as our position gradually shifted away from the stage towards the anonymity of the fifth form position near the exit doors; the removal of the Catholic boys, exiled to some religious Siberia that would have been made infinitely more terrifying by the eternal strut and perpetual terror of a certain schoolmaster; floods on the lower corridor, caused by 5th formers on the rampage; the CCF parades, and the paradox of the gentlest of teachers wearing the strictest of dress codes; Sports Day, with most of us consigned to sitting on the perimeters of the school field, endlessly talking about sex and not bothering at all that our House was performing rather disastrously yards from our discussions; the awful sickness felt before Double Biology and the weekly realisation that it could be my turn to be humbled and hurt; and the arrival of the first years, greeted with derision by the rest of the school as they collected in the outer quad to laugh at them as they arrived during that first lunch time of the new school year.

Each of us could take this list further. But, this time around, I will dwell on one of the many things at HCS that changed my life.

For some reason, in my fourth year (1959/60), I persuaded my mother that I would rather eat her egg and bacon pies every day than have school dinner. (Nowadays, for more modern readers, they’re often called quiches). I don’t remember at all hating school dinners – indeed I can still wistfully remember the taste of school synthetic cream and realise that I loved it – but, nevertheless, in a moment of whim (and utter selfishness) I mentioned my wish at home, a request that was instantly granted.

At school, this meant that I was consigned to some room (B5?) on the middle corridor, not a stone’s throw from the dreaded Biology Lab. Here, the non-school dinner deviants sat at the desks and scoffed - after the obligatory swappings - their lunches.

By this time – probably Spring 1960 – I was a confirmed rock’n’roller, and still can, with an almost laughable precision, relay the sequential Top 20s from 1958, 1959 and 1960. I had approached rock’n’roll (which isn’t surprising, given my age) as an ex-trainspotter and the fascination with lists echoed exactly my equally precise memory of all the names and numbers of the LMS Royal Scot class of engines: it was simply that I had found a new set of lists that was somehow more ideologically sound and age-appropriate than those characterised by my Junior School obsession.

B5, though, had this blackboard. And, on this blackboard was a Top Ten list of records, with an ultimatum written to the right of the list that barked ‘Please Leave’. And, throughout the next few months, it actually was left alone, with no teacher at all rubbing it out: they decided, perhaps intimidated by the excesses of the chart scrawlers, only to use the three quarters of the board left clear for their teaching purposes.

This Top 10 was remarkable because it bore no relationship at all to the Adam Faith and Cliff Richard charts in the real world. I can still, more than 40 years on, reel off some of the records listed – Let it Rock, by Chuck Berry; What’d I Say, Ray Charles; Wild Cat, Gene Vincent; Too Pooped to Pop, Chuck Berry – and ever more obscure singles by those like Shep and the Limelites, Preston Epps and the Chantels.

The list’s effect on me led me into conversation with its authors – fifth formers, one or two years my senior – most of whom sat in B5 at lunch time. Dave Lockyer, Ian Host and Paul Basting – there will have been others, but it is these I remember. So fascinated was I by the strangeness of their personal Top 10 that I persuaded Lockyer to lend me some of his 45s – a few Chuck Berrys, an odd Bo Diddley and some I’ve forgotten.

Listening to these singles at home changed my life. I realised, within hours of playing Roll Over Beethoven time after time (with the change arm on our Dansette record player left in the ‘up’ position so that the same single was repeated ad infinitum) that my whole approach to music was altering: for the first time, I felt a genuine sense of excitement. Something in those singles moved me, reaching wholly uncharted territitories; and, at home, my father’s reaction to this endless ‘drivel’ and his perpetual plea to ‘turn that rubbish off’ only added to its impact, with the excitement partnered by some unspoken and completely non-understood sense of danger.

It was the first time any art form had actually impacted on me. It ripped the lists out of my head; and the records I had bought over the previous months (like Bobby Darin and the Everly Brothers) were peripheralised for two decades into the ‘anodyne’ pile, objects of scorn which I would ridicule in conversations with my newly found friends.

It was as if, in those few short weeks, I’d found myself. So much that followed span out of that moment: the dawning idea that there was ‘real’ popular music, with its emphasis on an authenticity of experience; its corollary, that other things were ‘false’ or – two years later – ‘pseudo’, such a defining word in 1961 and 1962; a fast developed sense of ‘race’ and ‘class’, with my own working class origins suddenly becoming important (to me) as I realised my affinity with these fifth formers; and the tentative beginnings, not realised for several more years, of ‘ideologies’ and ‘principles’. Worth not birth, indeed.

Not that any of this affected my school work. I already had, by 1960, a clear idea in my head of the model required to plough through examinations, and this model – though perpetually challenged by the better teachers like Jim Golland and Harry Mees – served me right through to my finals at the LSE in 1966. In this, the ‘work’ I was doing was rigidly separated from my increasing understanding of the much deeper lessons I was absorbing from music – it was approached purely functionally. Things had to be, as far as I was concerned, learned more or less by heart and spewed out onto the examination page. Of course, there was a skill involved in this, and I always could write reasonably coherently and I understood from O levels-on that there was a need to tailor the right pages from my learned notes to the questions set. But – and this is the point – my learning was purely instrumental, with no connections whatsoever between the texts I was studying and the emotional chaos that characterised my teenage years.

I should state at this point my eternal gratitude to Geoff D’Arcy, the History teacher. D’Arcy produced a set of History A level notes so wonderful that it not only saw me through A levels without a hitch; it also formed the basis of my own notes when I taught History A level for three years; and it formed the basis for sets of notes in many other secondary schools in the UK – I know this because I handed them out literally to dozens of my friends, especially at the LSE, who subsequently were forever ringing me up to thank me. Had Geoff been teaching now, he could have made a fortune from the Web.

But, as Harry Mees always pointed out, this in no way made me a historian (he would scrawl on my essays ‘put away that Brett!’, referring to a text book we’d be using and I’d be copying from). Because, of course, I never was a historian, despite the fact that I ended up with really good academic history results.

My heart, I am afraid, was with the music. It was with the boys in B5. It was with a growing sense of rebellion and an increasing sense of personal liberation (coupled, predictably enough – with the benefit of hindsight - with an increasing sense of intolerance).

I’m writing this, at least partly, for Dave Lockyer. He meant more to me than Much Ado About Nothing or The Ship, or Henry Esmond, or, indeed, the causes of discontent in 1815. The discussions we had in B5 were seminal to my life in a way that even the best lessons were not – they changed me.

I don’t know where he is now, or what he’s doing. I’m reminded here of a song that’s come back into my head, a song from two or three years ago by Neil Young. It’s called One of These Days; and, in it, he tells how on one of these days he’ll finally get down to writing a long letter to all those who were important to him with whom he’s lost contact. He wanted, he says, simply to say ‘thank you'; and, in one of the verses, he refers to a group of ‘rough boys who played that rock’n’roll' back in his home town in Canada. They persuaded him to become a musician.

For me, Dave and the B5 gang were those self same rough boys. This is my letter to them.

Some of you may remember Lockyer’s incredible exit from a school assembly, probably a year or so after I got to know him. He had been responsible for digging up the school cricket pitch the day before the single most important game of the year – against Harrow School.

Seeing him hauled up onto the stage that day, disgraced and berated by A.R.Simpson, was, for so many of us at that time – certainly not just me – a moment still to be treasured.

It made so many of us realise that in a world that had sides, it was beginning to be clear which side we were on. Between the authoritarian with no apparent sensibility whatsover and the young rebel on the stage there was no contest. Lockyer became, within seconds, a school hero. None of us will forget his proud walk from the stage down the aisle between the assembled boys to the hall doors; nor Simpson’s pained expression on realising that his tirade had no effect on the kid with the attitude. Ever the Square.

It was Lockyer I thought of when I saw If… ;and him I thought of when the Beatles and the Stones came through in 1963 with their endless Chuck Berry re-treads. It is him I think of when I hear Van Morrison singing about the ‘days before rock’n’roll’, describing how he, in Belfast, like us, in Harrow, Hatch End and Kenton, began twiddling with the dials on his father’s radio to find AFN, Hilversum and Luxembourg. Anywhere to find Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. Anywhere to find the real, the relevant, the new moment.

It’s the total experience of the school we remember. And this focused, so often, on moments that would have been completely undetected within the formal structures of the school but which were epoch-defining for so many of us.

The boys of Harrow County.

Peter Fowler

November 2000

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