Harrow County School for Boys

Now and Then

by Peter Fowler

The paradox is this: when we were at school, it was always ‘now’; we lived in an eternal present, with no thoughts whatsoever of futures or even pasts. The days moved so slowly that  I can still pinpoint particular months of particular years, a part of my brain that seems to have been on standby for the last twenty years.

But we were young and growing, that’s all. We had the excitement of our own ages and this, for so many of us living during those times of real change, was coupled with the excitement of the age in which we lived.

But in the real now we are, on the Web Site,looking back. And we start to get confused because the Web's  ‘now’ has become the Gaytonian ‘then’ and we start to come to strange conclusions.  Like ‘what a good school that was’ and ‘isn’t it dreadful that we have to pay now for our children to have the same education we had then?’

I can’t understand why any parent, living at the turn of the century, can possibly believe that the education we received then is really appropriate for today.  ‘Today’ is manifestly not ‘yesterday’ and the linear, deferential, passive paradigm of Harrow County is as dead as the morality of In Which We Serve, as redundant as a slide rule and as obsolete as those examinations in which we threw our memorised  answers at the page.

We were in B12. It was Biology and it was Bigham. He was walking round the room, dictating. something about photosynthesis. He almost marched up the aisles between the desks, ominously swinging his walking stick. He must have seen himself as on parade. He must have imagined faces at the window watching his decorum. He barked out the lines to be written.

Graeme was sitting next to me. I felt a vague sense of comfort  because I was on the inside, away from the aisle. But we were both sweating. Trying to be neat in our work. Trying to catch the words. I couldn’t look up at Graeme, even when Bigham yelled at him.

‘What do you call this?’


‘What is this at the top of the page?’

‘A line, sir!’

‘It’s an empty line, boy! An empty line! Why didn’t you write on it?’

‘I forgot, sir..’

‘Do you realise that if you left out that line on every page, over a few books, you’d have wasted a whole book’s worth of pages?’

‘Yes, sir’.

‘How dare you say you knew this and yet you wilfully left the lines blank…..come out to the front, boy…

Bigham clipped the end of his walking stick round Graeme’s neck, and yanked him up so that he was dragged to the front, the slave boy led by his master. Within minutes, Graeme was reduced to tears, at one point bawling at the wall. 

And if I remember this so clearly, what on earth will he still think about that moment of absolute humiliation?

Is this an appropriate pedagogy for the twenty first century? This insidious mix of sadism, an utter lack of either perception or self perception, and a sheer hatred of children?

In such breeding grounds a thousand sexual, psychological and social kinks flourish. The germ is nourished nicely, protected by an ambience determined by cruelty, by an entrenched elitism (meritocratic rather than aristocratic in HCS, of course – ‘worth not birth’) and by that unbelievable sideshow of relics from the Days of  Empire characterised by the CCF and the Scouts.

 None of these made a man of us – it made men that were half-formed, men with an excessive amount of ambition and an undoubted sense of order that were unfortunately coupled to those awkward memories of watching boys masturbating each other in the classroom.  Or feeling the passionate slipper of that Chemistry teacher – the one who opened the door so he could take a run from the corridor into the room to give the hardest of whacks. He used to start his run like a fast bowler, with a couple of side steps preceding the power of the sprint to the stumps.

C3, Latin. A hot summer’s day. The master was torn: if the windows were opened, we could breathe but we could not hear anything but the noise of the traffic on Sheepcote Road. If the windows were closed, we all rapidly became comatose and were unable to make any sense of the Livy in front of us. His frustration was boiling over; and we, the boys, seized the moment, spotting, instinctively and aggressively, the incipient collapse of order. ‘Please, sir, I can’t breathe!’….’Please, sir, I can’t hear!’

Geoff Weedon was in my class, the son of guitarist Bert. Bert was doing rather well for himself and had had a couple of Top Ten hits; and his ‘Play in a Day’ book had hit the shops, acting as the springboard for thousands of would-be guitar heroes. He was becoming an unlikely hero which was all the stranger to us, his son’s friends, who saw him as just another father of just another boy.

The master, throwing his books on the desk, his face turning purple, launched his counter attack on the boys. And he did it by focusing on Weedon.

‘ I would have thought your father, with all his influence and all his wealth, could have spared some of his valuable time to address the lack of double glazing in his son’s school….’

He went on, bile on bile. How, perhaps, the guitar legend could have paid for it. Or appear for nothing, perhaps, at a fund raiser. Think of it: the insult to this professional scholar, this advocate of the highest arts, performing for next to nothing in a classroom that was not even functional whilst  a jumped up cockney tinkling around with 12 bar chord sequences was making a fortune.

The one had acquired a First Class Honours degree by sheer dogged application; and had learned the tools of his chosen trade, teaching, to the extent that he could communicate the lessons to be learned in a rigorously succinct manner – he was an excellent teacher.  The other had learned his trade in bars and clubs having left school at 15; and had no Latin, Greek, Mathematics and, indeed, no formal music qualifications whatsoever.

He had money, though. And lots of it. And he was having a great time.

The school was in a world that’s gone. Here, in this Latin lesson, the contradictions were showing – and this was 15 years before the school changed its selection procedures. Harrow County was built for the mid-century, built for squeezing a few (just a few) worthies with no monied background into the professions. It was designed to turn out decent professionals, fit for the law, health, politics, education and the services. And it did this supremely well.

In doing this, it emphasised the newly emerging strata in UK society, those made acceptable by the broadening out characterised by Labour’s successes in 1945 and 1964. But, in doing so, it made damn sure that the new divisions were real and that new forms of elitism and snobbery floated to the surface.

I couldn’t hold back my sense of pride. I’d spent the first year in 1D and never could accept the ignominy of being in a D stream, even though the evidence that the selection process had been arbitrary rather than real was everywhere. But now, on that large board behind the glass window in the school entrance area the boys used, were the results of the examinations. I stared over and over again as I saw my name at 10th out of 140, and placed in the upper half of the new 2A.

The first lesson we had was English. Jim Golland. He breezed into C3 and delivered what I can only describe as a sermon.

‘When you came to this school’, he said, ‘you were already the brightest of the children who sat the 11+. This school only takes the very best scholarship entrants which is why you would’ ve had to put Harrow County down as your first choice.

But now you are in 2A. You are the cream of the cream, the most able group of 12 and 13 year olds in Harrow. You are going to be the most successful of all….’

The sermon petered out into homilies about responsibilities and duties; but the message had already struck home. We were the best.

The rest, of course, didn’t bear thinking about. Granted, there was a continual juggling over the next couple of years between the B and A streams, with the occasional star bursting out from the C stream and leaping to the top in a fit of late development (or, more likely, from a sudden and strange desire to do some work). But, in the main, the die was cast by the time we were gathered in that classroom that day. We were the best.

And we were treated that way. We got the best teachers. We got the pushing, forced into insane curriculum choices before we were out of puberty; and then force fed in the frenzy of the 4th year where we had the chance, which we thought we simply had to take (failure was the alternative), to bypass the dinosaurs in the 5th form, heading, we thought, for the factories.

We were being groomed to be the new elite. 

That this message was insane even at that time is evidenced all over this Web Site. The numbers of those who have ‘done very well for themselves’ (to use a phrase from my parents' generation) and came out of the C and D streams is strikingly high. And, even in the very professions at which the boys of 2A were targetted,  I find it heartwarmingly ironic, and splendidly so, that one of those who shared my time in 1D and never did make it to the A streams - and worked through the 5th year programme - is now a Dean of a University Faculty with a highly credible research record.

But, if this pedagogical approach were insane in the 50s and 60s, how on earth can there be those who somehow feel that Harrow County should be revived, with new would-be elites torn from the clutches of the comprehensive system and placed in a world dominated by militarism, authoritarianism and the narrowest of academic curricula? That the present UK comprehensive system is a mess should in no way seduce us into thinking that the way out of this is to shove the history lever into reverse and force our kids and our kids' kids into school caps, punctuating their schooling with the odd slipper and the odd walking stick yanked around their necks.

I am writing this as an Old Gaytonian is trying to become the leader of the Conservative Party. I never knew Michael Portillo for he began at HCS just after I left; but, as I look at him and the stance he has adopted in his campaign, the fault lines of Harrow County are deeply embedded in everything he does. He has veered in his political career between crass macho elitism (the SAS speech, his Gung Ho approach to the Poll Tax) and the new libertarianism of the 80s Conservative students (anyone who wants to snort cocaine should have the right to do so - he's never said that but many of his colleagues did).  His wholly admirable confession on his sexual past echoes exactly with the ambiguities of the all male school; and, at the same time, the cosiness of his time as a Thatcherite Think Tank star (Nigel Lawson's darling) produces an image to me not just of his seminars at Oxford with Prof Cowling but also, more pertinently, of his particularly bright Prefects' Common Room.

In his campaign he - and he alone - has realised the ethical positions characterised by the Age of Harrow County are over.  We do not live in the 1950s anymore. And, if I, as a pupil in the late 50s and early 60s, was torn apart by the contradictions of the manners and etiquette of the school and those in the world outside, in the streets of Harrow, how much more would he have been, those vital few years later? I would imagine - no, more than that, I would know, that by the time he hit the Sixth Form, dope smoking would have been a normal dinner time activity for the deviants in his year and the profound fall-outs from 1967 and 1968 would have been evidenced everywhere.

That morality switch, that gasp for breath of those whose parents lived through the War, was never, despite Thatcher and John Major's Back to Basics, reversed. We still have huge problems but we are heading, irreversibly, for a multicultural society in which different sexual patterns and different family patterns will be increasingly seen as acceptable; and we are heading, like everyone else,  towards a global village within which life successes will be built, eventually, on an educational model that doesn't just dispense with the anachronisms of Harrow County but which also consigns our present deeply flawed secondary school system to the dustbin of history.

Since Michael Portillo went to HCS at the time he did, he will know all of this, there's nothing new here. But the irony is that the present Government -  prissy, pompous and manipulative to the core - is, actually, open to attack on each of these fronts. Paradoxically, this a Government that reeks of those Gaytonian Sixth Form swats who turned their noses up at the kids in the corner rolling a joint (even if they rationalised their arguments, as I remember so clearly in the late 1960s, as 'I wouldn't touch marijuana because it's diversionary to the class struggle'). We live in a Government dominated by the Grammar School ethos even though nearly all of them would fight the idea of  reviving their old schools to the death.

And, just like the dying years of Harrow County, they don't get it. They can't understand the young. Their opinions, like those of A. R. Simpson, even though his ideology was so different, are fixed and immovable. Their response, their eternal tribute to their Grammar Schools, to their days of seeing their names on the Honours Boards, is to put the league table at the centre of everything. The Gaytonian drive for meritocracy, worth not birth, sits at the heart of Government, ticking boxes for everything in a glut of competence-based assessments and completely missing the self evident fact that it is the quality of things (trains, health, roads, the environment, schools) and not the quantity of ticks gained that is the issue.

This crass philosophy, based on the simple need to win every four years, and stripped of those noble aims of the founding fathers of their political party (even if you may not have agreed with them), produces an enormous vacuum right at the centre of politics. Somebody somewhere has the chance to motivate that ever growing contingent of people who simply stay away from the ballot boxes and decide to watch Big Brother instead.

And, right on cue, in steps the Old Gaytonian.  I am writing this as an inveterate leftist, scarred forever according to some of my old teachers by the madness of the late 60s. And I am writing this as someone who has loathed the stances taken by my fellow Gaytonian, and one who, with most of the nation, got the greatest of pleasure watching that young gay whippersnapper snatch Enfield away from him in that wonderful middle-of-the-night moment in May 1997. But even I can see that Portillo is the only one in his competition to grasp that there is a 'now' and that it is very different than 'then'. And that sticking to 'then' will simply spell the end.

If he fails, and I suspect he will, it will be because of all of those Daily Mail Conservative Party members who still believe, and will continue to believe forever and a day, that all we need to do is to get Harrow County Boys Grammar School back on the road again. Hold fast, fight on! If beaten - try again!

For the first time in my life I think their party's over.

Just as - apart, that is, from this glorious Web Site and its abilities to get old friends back together again - Harrow County's is.

Peter Fowler

July 2001


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