Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Well, what do I call it: Alma Mater, Borstal, Personal Prison, Privileged Background (as in Key to Lifelong Success In Life) take your pick, none is appropriate

Earlier tonight I replied to a correspondent whom I should like to call a friend but can’t really as I have never actually met him. He had emailed to point out that he was somewhat puzzled by an aspect of a previous entry. Well, I don’t really want to go into that entry as in my reply I was more candid than I can be here. But I should like to mention one of the things he and I have in common is that we both went to the same school. It was (fanfare, please) the Oratory School which now likes - spuriously - to style itself the ‘Catholic Eton’, but that tells you nothing more than that even boarding schools are now resorting to marketing men who will come up with any kind of bullshit to pull in the custom.

Apparently, Cardinal Newman, who founded the school in Edgbaston, Birmingham, hoped he could start and run a school which was as good as Eton, but that is a long, long way off actually being a ‘Catholic Eton‘, and when I was there, from 1963 to 1968, it seemed to me to have more in common with Dotheboys Hall, than Eton. (And by the way, given that Eton has something like 1,000 pupils, what exactly is so special about being an ‘old Etonian’? There must be several million of them by now which rather dents any claim to exclusivity. Just a thought.)
The OS, as we referred to the school when I was there, has undoubtedly improved in the intervening years, but then it had to. It was generally accepted that if your son was too thick to get into one of the other ‘leading’ RC public schools - Stoneyhurst, Ampleforth or Downside - you tried your luck at the Oratory, which always needed the dosh and would take virtually anyone, especially the rejects.

I don‘t know where all the money was going, apart from ‘missing’, but it was a very hand-to-mouth existence if I recall. The food was between bloody awful and almost inedible, the heating - what there was of it - was turned on on November the 1 and turned off again on March 31, whether or not it was cold - and it usually was -, there was hardly any hot water and we were still ‘beaten’.
Some wiseacre or other once observed, and it has become some kind of wisdom, that living in such conditions ‘develops character‘. No, it doesn’t. And the claim is only made to defend the utterly indefensible. We had the usual gamut of characters, from a second master called ‘Dr’ Williams, a Welshman who claimed to have played rugby for Wales and cricket for Glamorgan, but had done nothing of the kind, as was easily established by my housemaster (Fitzalan), a Tony Tinkel, and the other housemasters. Then they found a correspondence course in economics in the boot of his car - he ‘taught‘economics - and realised he was just keeping one step ahead of the class. They confronted him with all his bullshit - I got all this from Tony Tinkel himself - and that was it: he was off.

Another character was some bogus major who turned up every Tuesday to run the school CCF (I think it stands for Combined Cadet Force) and who suddenly disappeared with as much petty cash as he could lay his hands. Other masters were a Mr Cornwell, who taught Latin and seemed as batty as a fruitcake, a maths teacher who was barely over 5ft tall - or was it barely under 5ft tall? - and who was teased incessantly, so much so that several years after I left he topped himself (though there might have been other problems, too, I don‘t know). There were some good teachers - I particularly enjoyed chemistry taught by Tony Mallet - and liked Mr McCowan, who taught us physics. It wasn’t all Decline And Fall stuff.

The headmaster for my first four years was a Dom Adrian Morey, who was also housemaster of Junior House, which was a mile away and to which all first-year boys belonged, and Christ could he beat hard. It was his practice in the summer to take all the Junior House boys swimming after supper and on our way to Junior House, and we all had to swim nude. And with the best will in the world I cannot give an innocent explanation for that. But this was 50 years ago.

The chaplain, a Father Norman Millard, also apparently had sex with some of the boys, but I only found out later. I think he was eventually defrocked, but I can‘t be certain on that. Yes, some got a good education there - the outgoing Lord Chief Justice was at the OS a few years before me, and Edward Leigh, MP for Higher Loamshire or somewhere, was in the year below me. But don’t believe anyone who insists that having had a ‘public school education’ ‘gives you an unfair advantage’. It does nothing of the kind. The best you can hope for is to be a little more nicely spoken, but even that is now going by the board.

Anyway, The Bat, a Lancashire lass born and bred is proof that anyone can sound ‘posh’ and have airs and graces if they want to and try hard enough. I ran away three times in my first term, but it wasn’t difficult as we only lived eight miles away. Then my brother and I were day boys for the rest of the year and the following year (which was a pain, because lessons didn’t end until 7pm - there were only about six day boys, but around 250 boarders - and we even had to go to school on Saturdays, though as we did prep (homework) at school there was none of that at home. But then my father was posted to Paris and I became a boarder. I was dreading it, but as it turned out it wasn’t too bad - awful food, cold water and no heating notwithstanding - and I had quite a laugh, though admittedly an education is supposed to consist of something just a little more than ‘having quite a laugh’.

Everyone - everyone! - in my year became a prefect of some kind - house or school - in their fourth or fifth year, but I wasn’t considered responsible enough. But that didn’t bother me: I got three A-levels at the end of my fourth year, but returned for a fifth year to ‘improve’ them (I didn’t), but being the only guy at school in my fifth year with A-levels (there were quite a few thickos in my year who hadn’t been farmed out to work in some estate agent’s office who had failed their A-levels and returned for a fifth year to try to bloody get some), I invented ‘sixth-form privileges’, and it never occurred to anyone to call my bluff. So I would swan around having hijacked all the prefect’s privileges - leaving your jacket undone and using stairs and corridors forbidden to others - with none of the responsibilities. Not bad. Perhaps the other chap who went there and reads this would like to comment and possibly put right some of the bollocks I have undoubtedly talked and even add a few reminiscences of his own. Any chance, Barry?

If you are desperate to find out more about the Oratory, here is it’s Wikipedia entry. My advice is to reject half of what is written there out-of-hand and treat the rest with a large pinch of salt. In fact that would be true of any claims made by any public school as well as more or less everything which appears in Wikipedia. More about the OS (from me) on request.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry Patrick, the OS was even worse when I was there – so not really a time in my life that I dwell much upon. [I’ll send you an email.] It was a minor public school where a rare success in achieving a place at Oxford was celebrated with a half-holiday. Other universities weren’t even countenanced, though many pupils went to the RMA, Sandhurst, having shown some skill at games – which was what really mattered. Fortunately for many, those were the days when a career in the law or accountancy could be entered without A Levels.