ON PLACE AND MEMORY
I was thinking of reading this piece with the Havant group as an addition to the handout for 'homework' on Memory. But there wasn't time. Some of the group asked me to post it, however, so this is the first bit of some forty pages of rather rough memoir cum notes about my prepschool, which was called Hillsbrow, and was in Redhill, Surrey and is long since defunct.
My notes are not as meticulous as I asked you to be in the sense that I haven't confined myself to 'showing' . But does make a link between the idea of memory and the sense of place. Further material appears on the 'Hillsbrow' website, and in my poems. I've added one at the end, which is part of a sequence in memory of my mother.
I went to Hillsbrow at the end of the war. My father had been stationed at Cosford with the RAF as a PTI. Now, with demob, he and my mother were to go back to their careers in show business (concert party), which meant travelling, which meant boarding school for me.
I had already been sent to private schools in Albrighton (near Cosford),
and had a little French from La Vie de Madame Souris, and could read and write. I'd got through my first whole novel, Enid Blyton's Shadow the Sheepdog. My reading was to be focused on animals for a long time. I'm not sure whether I took an entrance exam, but when I got to Hillsbrow I found myself in form 3, that is one up from the lowest form. I'm not sure why there was no form 1.
During the war the school had been evacuated from Redhill, and had continued at East Anstey in Devon, 'Knap', as the older pupils referred to it. I recall a visit there with my parents, and seeing the headmaster, Mr Seale, outside at a table watching cricket. The field is huge in my memory, and we were struck by the way in which boys, who came up to see Mr Seale for something, flicked their fingers and called out 'Sofs, Sofs'. The flicking was done with the index finger, which had to be held limp as the forearm was shaken. I learned later that the strange syllable was an abbreviation for
'Thanks awfully, sir.' This was an introduction to Geoffrey Seale's development of school ethos through different 'traditions'.
It was September 1946, and the playing fields had been newly mown, the rugger posts erected, and boys 'kicking' as we arrived. That meant practising place kicks with a partner, one each side of the posts. It had been raining and the balls shone silver as they rose and fell.
I recall leaving Cosford Halt, my first visit there. But the journey and the leave-taking are blank. The homesickness was intense, and I can recall wandering up and down the long common room in tears or near tears, first moving towards the wall clock at one end of the long room, and then towards the wall clock at the other. The clocks stay in the mind. Small brown clocks, with a short pendulum that was visible through glass. This homesickness was to be coped with, but never really overcome during the whole of my
boarding school education. Perhaps not ever.
I began in Top Dorm, right at the top of the second floor of the house next to the sick room. The broad stairs spiralled round from the ground floor always keeping next to the wall. The dormitory had bunks, and I was below.
The routine of the day was that the bell, a fire bell in fact, would go at 7.30, when we went to the bathroom and unhooked our sponge bags from the name labelled hook in the bathroom, washed, and brushed teeth, and then dressed in the grey flannel (or corduroy) shorts, white shirt and grey v-neck sweater. Usually, I think, I wore brown sandals. We went downstairs, and had to pass an inspection by Miss Wilson, who was one of the teachers, but also doubled as a senior matron, an outwardly severe woman with steel wool grey hair and dark loose clothes and glass, which she seemed to peer through with the eyes almost shut. She was particularly severe on fly-buttons forgotten to be done up and you lost a house point, and later on she would mock my 'little things' when I appeared with cowboy holsters and belt.
We went down to the school room (I can't recall what we called it, not 'common room') and had time free until the bell rang for breakfast roll call. Some boys would be on 'breakfast lot', which meant helping to get the tables ready for breakfast, with Frank, the cook, a very short man indeed with a Welsh accent I couldn’t understand at first. The house had been converted so that a new 'wing' had been put on in a more modern rectangular style, comprising the dining room, and the so-called 'New Dorm', above it. But the kitchen itself was part of the original building and its floors were smooth worn stone. It had something of the stony feel of a castle room in a castle. Huge space, with huge tables there, and plates clattering. The food was generally put out on the tables before the boys came in to eat. This meant that sometimes it was cold. The porridge often had a gluey consistency.
When the bell went we formed a long queue, with the school prefects at the head, then the house prefects, and then in descending order to the lowest. I was not last. I was second to last, next to someone called Cook. A further conversion of the original house, I suspect, was that the main school room had been created by knocking down a wall, so that what must have previously been the dining room (there was still a hatch) and the parlour, were joined, but could be separated into two classrooms by a folding door. At the opposite end to the hatch, leading to the kitchen, there were bay windows with a bench along them. The queue for roll call reached to the bay windows, and when the day boys were in curled back in front of the fireplace.
There were notice boards on which the house on duty, the school and house prefects on duty, were written. These had sections of black on which names could be chalked in. The duty house and prefects had to see mainly to tidying up, picking up sweet papers, sweeping the floors, and so on. There were no carpets in the main rooms, and the floorboards were not polished or (I think) even stained. I recall studying the whorls in the planks during prayers. There was just over a hundred boys in the entire school.
The roll call would be read by the head prefect with a register put on a black polished table with a brass plaque on it showing it had been a birthday present for Mr Seale. The year of the gift I don't recall. The date of his birthday was November 2.
We then filed into breakfast and stood in silence for grace. 'Benedictus benedicat, per Jesum Christum dominum nostrum.' This was said by the school prefect on duty, and it was always funny when he forgot, and there would be a long long silence before either he 'woke up' with an embarrassed start, or had to be reminded by an elbow. A lapse somewhere, either in the Latin curriculum or me, was that I never knew what the grace meant, and to this day don't understand the first two words! The dining room had four long dark polished tables around its walls. In the centre of the room there was a small table where the senior boys, the prefects, sat with Mr Seale at the head of that, and sometimes Jimmy Hay (later to discover he was in fact Sir James Darlrymple-Hay), on his right. Their breakfasts were cooked separately from ours (and were hotter!), and each would give his second piece of fried bread to one of the boys at that table. It went in rotation, with the flicking and 'sofs' (thanks awf-lay sir) to show gratitude.
On the walls of the dining room were very carefully designed boards done in ink on pale brown wood, giving the names of former pupils (I assumed this, though it was never explained) with the name of a public school in brackets. I recall Marlborough being one of them. There were two of these boards, but the practice of recording where
pupils went after leaving the school seemed to have stopped some time before I got there. This, though, was connected in my mind to 'tradition'. I think it was after grace that Mr Seale would distribute the letters, but it maybe that this was done at the end of the meal, when the parcels also were given out. He'd call out the boy's name and then skim the letter, with some skill, across the room to, or towards, where he was sitting. I recall that, in my first weeks, my parents had to print their letters to me in capitals because I couldn't then read joined up writing, or at least theirs, and that the number of letters they sent was bewildering, and tended to increase my homesickness. Also the little girl I'd played with on the same Air Ministry estate in Albrighton, sent a letter with my surname done in small kiss-crosses at the bottom. At the end of breakfast there would be the handing out of parcels, which contained mainly 'tuck', and some people seemed always to be getting parcels, Tracy Judd, for example, and others hardly at all. Grace at the end of breakfast, and we went upstairs to the dorms to make our beds, a skill I had to learn. Sheets turned back, pyjamas under pillow.
Then down again for a few moments before another bell would announce prayers. This was followed by day's announcements. Mr Seale sat at his dark table, and the staff were in a line facing us from the front of the classrooms (the folding doors being drawn back), but mainly in Class 5. Class 5 sat in their desks and the rest of us on the floor among the desks. The school prefects sat along the bench under the bay window which looked out onto woods. You could also just see the darkly creosoted hut which housed Class 2 and was used as the chapel on Sundays.
Class 3, where I began, was in another narrower and smaller hut beyond Class 2/chapel, and along a brick-laid path which got covered in leaves in winter. It was a long dim building. We were taught by a Miss Brown, of brown complexion, and plump sagging cheeks and a deep voice. But I do have a guilty memory of playing pickpocket for a lark, and getting some imitation money ('dosh') out of the inside jacket pocket of a boy called Hankey - and then (as I recall) not giving it back, or being too embarrassed to. For some reason I associate Miss Brown with the rhyme we used to giggle about.
Old ma Nellie
with the bamboo belly
and her tits tied up with string.
Lay down on the grass
with a trumpet up her arse
and played God Save the King
There was a twenty minute morning break during which we generally kicked rugger balls about, or I did, or in summer played cricket with a tree for a wicket. There was not time to go far into the woods, as I liked. In winter, however, sometimes it was miserably, miserably cold out there. An outside bell would go for resumption of work, and then we'd stop for dinner (lunch), which had (I recall) the same roll call routine, but no mail. Sometimes the gravy was cold and wrinkled. There were also some very odd meats, which we thought must be whale. Best was the sausages and chips menu. Afters were often semolina. As I recall, but am not quite sure, there were no afternoon classes. But there may have been just the one period. Anyway, after lunch we would be allowed to gather round Mr Seale's table while he read out the teams for the rugger (or cricket) practice that afternoon. The exception to this was where, sometimes on a Wednesday, there was an away match with another school. The rest of the school got hold of blackboards and chalked slogans saying 'Play up, Hillsbrow' and so on, which they took out onto the drive circle outside the front door, and waved us off in the ‘charra bang’ to Bickely, or Weybridge or Limpsfield, or wherever it was. Possibly because of the amount of practice we had, we more often won matches than lost, and this was a source of morale, at least for those of us who fitted in and were good at games (Here for once I did fit) especially as sport was given a much higher status in the school than 'work'.
POEM FROM NEW BOOK
PROBABLY TO BE CALLED 'THE PIANIST LIVES BY HIS HANDS HIS HANDS ARE EMPTY'
Our homesickness¸ said Mr Seale, we know
our souls through that. It makes us strong. His eyes
had lifted from the bedtime book. And so
we don’t have lullabies, no lullabies
at Hillsbrow School. We grinned, wet parted hair,
pyjamas, slippers under beds, and cries
of owls beyond the open windows where
Lost Jungle City was. Goodnight, he said,
his hand up to the switch, and vanished there.
And in the darkness just above my head
tears balanced on your eyes as if in some
spotlight, but now for me alone instead.
And so there was a lullaby, then, Mum.
You sang it without knowing that you’d come.
 The house had originally been built in the 1860s by John Linnell, the painter and friend of Samuel Palmer and William Blake. It had been turned into a school in the 1920s, but actually own by a fuller's earth company from which the original head, G D Seale leased it. It closed in the 1960s.