Tuesday, 29 March 2005

Monty Don's Schooldays

From the Times Educational Supplement, an article about Monty Don's Schooldays :
I was kicked out of primary school for putting nettles down girls' knickers and getting more black marks in one term than anyone else had in their entire school career.

So at the age of eight I became a boarder a little earlier than planned. I went to an all-boys school, which no longer exists, with the spectacular name of Bigshotte. The headmaster had been a boy at the school in the 1920s and it hadn't changed from his day. The curriculum was based on Latin, Greek, French, maths, English, history, geography and divinity. There was no science; everything was geared towards the common entrance exam.

Classes were small; the biggest was 12, and it wasn't unusual to be in a group of eight. We were kept busy from morning until night. It was harsh - we were always hungry and cold - but we had 60 acres of woods to play in.

Ian McWhinnie, who taught English and drama, was different from the other teachers. He brought a tape recorder into class and we listened to radio plays he'd recorded. He would play a piece of music and get us to paint a picture of the music and then write a poem about the picture. I took to his teaching style, and Mr McWhinnie nurtured and encouraged me. I wrote poetry and entered national competitions and won them. He put on a play every term and I took part. We did TSEliot's Murder in the Cathedral and I was Beckett.

With hindsight, Mr McWhinnie wasn't a particularly nice man. He had a terrible temper and could be a bully; screaming and shouting at little boys, reducing them to tears. He didn't do it to me because I was his favourite. He was incredibly involved and passionate. His great gift as a teacher was that he took us all seriously. He asked what you thought about things and gave the impression that he really wanted to know. If you did a painting he'd put it on the wall and bring in people to look at it. He was the first person to teach me that expressing yourself through writing, music, painting or acting was something to be treasured.
Monty Don's memory plays him false in only two regards : by 1968, a demountable Science classroom, complete with Bunsen Burners has been set up. I learned about fractional distillation of oil there, by actually doing it.

And Mr McWhinnie (also known as 'Tyrannosaurus Rex') was a pretty good bloke, despite his spectacular temper. With hindsight. Certainly a helluva good teacher. But a dressing-down from him was something that would be etched in anyone's memory, still fresh after 40 years. I speak from personal experience. He really, really cared.

In all other regards - and I do mean *all* - Don's 100% accurate. The Spartan regime, straight out of "Kim". The Boarding-School Porridge. The Cocoa after Prep.

The place was something of an anachronism, a "relic of a bygone era" even in 1967. I learned how to use chopsticks from a boy whose Father was an RAF officer in Kuala Lumpur. But we watched Dr Who on the School TV in glorious Black-and-White - so there's some continuity with today, 4 years into the 21st century.

Don doesn't mention some of the other teachers - such as the very young and wet-behind-the-ears Mr Perham (now the Very Reverend Michael Perham, Dean of Derby Cathedral). Or Mr Black, one of the kindliest men I've ever known. Or Monsieur Guteron, the French teacher with the perpetual sneer on his face - which unbeknownst to any of us, was a souvenir of a lengthy session of torture by the Gestapo, he was a true hero of the Resistance. Something I learned only a few years ago. Major Don (Maths and Science). Mr Weston(History). Or the headmaster, Mr Marshall, and his dachsund, Otto.

And I'm still referring to him as "Don" rather than "Monty Don", just as everyone was known by their surnames - Brain, Chancellor-Senior, Chancellor-Junior, Don... down to the Zygmunds, Senior, Junior, Minimus and Quartus.

Not quite the happiest days of my life - but certainly not far off.

STOP PRESS: I now see that he's now the Right Reverend Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester.

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